A top adviser to Donald Trump said on Sunday that the president-elect accepts the intelligence community’s finding that Russia tried to interfere with this year’s presidential election by stealing and disseminating Democratic Party emails.
But the adviser, incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, insisted that the email hack had no effect on the election outcome ― and tried to change the conversation to the Democratic National Committee’s cybersecurity defenses.
In response to tough, persistent questioning from Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, Priebus stated several times that Trump had finally accepted the conclusion that three intelligence agencies (the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency) have reached ― namely, that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election in order to help Trump defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Trump has refused to make a similar concession publicly. He has suggested that the hacking, which led to the publication of politically embarrassing emails by top Clinton advisers, could have come from another country ― or, as Trump famously put it in one of the presidential debates, “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
On Friday, after a private briefing with U.S. intelligence agencies and publication of a declassified version of their findings, Trump issued a prepared statement expressing “tremendous respect” for those organizations. But that statement stopped short of endorsing the conclusion that Russia, directed by President Vladimir Putin, had tried to help Trump beat Clinton.
Instead, Trump said there have been efforts to meddle in American elections for a long time and they’ve come from several foreign actors, including China as well as Russia. Trump went on to blame the DNC for not taking enough steps to avoid theft of its emails.
Priebus made the same arguments on Sunday, even as he acknowledged what Trump has not ― that the 2016 campaign hack came from Russia.
And in his answers, Priebus conspicuously referred to “Russian entities” and not Putin individually ― even though the intelligence agencies found that Putin had personally “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election” and that Putin had “a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
Here’s how one of the exchanges went:
WALLACE: “Does [Trump] accept that the Russians were behind this hacking campaign, yes or no?”
PRIEBUS: “Well, sure, he’s not denying that entities in Russia were behind this particular hacking campaign. … But here’s what we have, we have the DNC as a sitting duck. … If the DNC allows any foreign entity into their system and says here, here’s 50,000 emails, you can have them, voila, now you have the biggest dissemination of emails that we have ever seen in the history of America.”
WALLACE: “Who do you blame more for this, Reince? Do you blame Putin and the Kremlin? Or do you blame the DNC? Who’s the primary actor here?”
PRIEBUS: “Listen, the primary actor is the foreign entity that is perpetrating the crime to begin with …”
WALLACE: “Which was?”
PRIEBUS: “No doubt about it, I’m not denying that.”
WALLACE: “Which was?”
PRIEBUS: “I’m not denying it. I’m not denying it.”
WALLACE: “What was that foreign entity?”
PRIEBUS: “Russia. But what I’m telling you is that we also have a situation … with people at the DNC …”
On CNN Sunday, Kellyanne Conway, who will join the Trump White House as a senior adviser, offered similar arguments. Speaking of the declassified intelligence briefing, she said there were “no fireworks in that report because no firewall at the DNC.”