At 2:24 pm on Friday, President-elect Donald Trump concluded a meeting with America’s top spies on their assessment that Russia hacked Hillary Clinton allies and released their emails to help Trump’s campaign. The evidence, we know from both public sources and leaked intelligence community conclusions, is damning — yet Trump has continually cast doubt on it, even citing WikiLeaks head Julian Assange as a witness in his favor.
Ten minutes after his briefing, his office released the following statement. The full text, appended below, doesn’t contain a single whiff of apology (aside from pro forma praise for America’s spies). It basically leaves the core Trump-versus-spies debates — Did Russia hack Clinton? Was the Kremlin trying to help Trump? — unsettled:
I had a constructive meeting and conversation with the leaders of the Intelligence Community this afternoon. I have tremendous respect for the work and service done by the men and women of this community to our great nation.
While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines. There were attempts to hack the Republican National Committee, but the RNC had strong hacking defenses and the hackers were unsuccessful.
Whether it is our government, organizations, associations or businesses we need to aggressively combat and stop cyberattacks. I will appoint a team to give me a plan within 90 days of taking office. The methods, tools and tactics we use to keep America safe should not be a public discussion that will benefit those who seek to do us harm. Two weeks from today I will take the oath of office and America’s safety and security will be my number one priority.
What’s interesting about the statement is that its principal concern isn’t the threat to US democracy posed by Russian hacking capabilities, or even Russia per se. It devotes exactly zero words to the evidence, surely presented to Trump, of Russian involvement.
The largest chunk of the statement, in fact, is devoted to downplaying the hacks — to arguing that they were targeted at Republicans and Democrats alike and didn’t affect the outcome one way or another. In fact, the statement lumps Russia in with China and other unnamed countries and outside groups as potential perpetrators, echoing Trump’s previous assertions that the hacks could have been carried out by “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
We know, however, that the Russians made repeated and sophisticated attempts to get access to Democratic emails. Per the Wall Street Journal, they only targeted a single Republican account — one belonging to a “long departed” Republican National Committee staffer. And it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to say whether the hacks affected the outcome of the election. When only 80,000 votes separate a winner from a loser, a lot of things can end up mattering.
What this statement reveals, more than anything else, is Trump’s priorities. He is not interested in a dispassionate assessment of the Russian hack of the election, or the threat such hacking poses to US democracy. He is interested in minimizing any perceived threat to his own legitimacy from people who decide he owes his election to backing from the Kremlin.
This statement, then, is really just an exercise in Trump brand management — and nothing more.