Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered an intelligence operation against the U.S. presidential campaign and ultimately sought to help Donald Trump win the White House, according to a new U.S. intelligence report released Friday, shortly after the president-elect appeared to dismiss its key findings.
Putin both “aspired to help” Trump in November and to “harm” Trump’s rival, Democratic nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with leaks of pilfered emails and other covert activities, the report concludes in a dramatic expansion of official U.S. accusations against the Kremlin.
The report depicts the Russian operation as unprecedented, saying that an aggressive mix of digital thefts and leaks, fake news and propaganda represented “a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort” against a U.S. election campaign.
Moscow’s goals “were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” the report states. “We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
They “aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton,” the report adds.
U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies found no evidence that hackers tampered with actual voting or with counting ballots on election day.
But in a startling new assertion, it says Russian intelligence “obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards,” adding that Russian spies began collecting information on equipment used in U.S. elections in early 2014.
The 14 pages released offer a largely circumstantial case rather than hard evidence of Putin’s direct involvement, and mostly focus on Russian propaganda efforts. But the full report remains classified, and the public portion does not include the specific intelligence.
Still, the rare release of a major intelligence assessment marks a sharp escalation in what has become a bare-knuckle fight between Trump and the U.S. intelligence community, backed by President Obama, over the president-elect’s repeated derision of their understanding of Russia’s role.
Intelligence officials had planned to declassify the key findings next week after briefing members of Congress. But the declassified summary was rushed out Friday afternoon shortly after Trump had been briefed on the full report — and had made clear he was not convinced.
In a statement, Trump conflated the Russian cyberattacks with those of other countries and individuals, and said the hacking had “absolutely no effect” on the election.
“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,” Trump said after he was briefed by four U.S. intelligence chiefs at his office in New York.
Earlier Friday, in an interview with the New York Times, Trump had called the focus on election-related hacking a “political witch hunt” by his adversaries, who he said were embarrassed by their loss in November.
The growing dispute has become a sore point for Trump’s transition team and a worry for Republicans on Capitol Hill who are convinced that Moscow had a malign role and fear Trump’s presidency will get off to a shaky start.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) acknowledged the predicament Friday, noting that Russia “clearly tried to meddle in our political system.”
But he warned that Democrats might try to use the intelligence report to undermine Trump’s mandate in the White House. “We cannot allow partisans to exploit this report in an attempt to delegitimize the president-elect’s victory,” Ryan said.
Democrats were quick to respond.
“I’m appalled the Russian government took the extreme step of interfering with our presidential election, particularly with the goal of tilting the playing field to increase one candidate’s chance of winning,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“The President-Elect’s statement that the Russian hacking had ‘absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election’ is not supported by the briefing, report, or common sense,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, in a statement.
The report, which Obama had requested, is a joint product of the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency. The three agencies said they had “high confidence” in the findings except for the assessment that Putin had aspired to help Trump’s chances. The NSA said it had “moderate confidence” in that finding.
In addition to stealing and dumping embarrassing emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign, Russian intelligence officials also used state-funded broadcasts and third-party intermediaries, and paid social media “trolls” to spread false information and disparage Clinton, the report says.
When it appeared that Clinton was likely to win, according to the report, Moscow “focused more on undercutting [her] legitimacy and crippling her presidency from the start.”
Putin “holds a grudge” against Clinton, it noted, adding, “He has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012.”
Officials working for the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, used an online persona known as Guccifer 2.0 and the website DCLeaks.com to release emails, as well as to relay them to WikiLeaks.
Earlier this week, Trump retweeted denials by Julian Assange, the fugitive founder of Wikileaks, that it had gotten the emails from the Russian government or its operatives.
Trump was briefed on the evidence for more than an hour in a face-to-face meeting with Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James B. Comey and Adm. Michael S. Rogers, head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command.
Soon after, Trump issued a statement that called the meeting “constructive” and said he had “tremendous respect” for those serving in the nation’s intelligence agencies.
That marked a shift from the mocking tweets he had issued in recent weeks, using language so demoralizing that Clapper publicly noted at a Senate hearing on Thursday that there was a difference between healthy skepticism and “disparagement.”
Trump said the U.S. needed to “aggressively combat and stop” cyberattacks, and said he would order a team to create a plan within the first three months of taking office.
In addition, Trump said hackers tried but failed to infiltrate Republican National Committee computers. The RNC had “strong hacking defenses and the hackers were unsuccessful," Trump said.
He was joined at the briefing by members of his national security team: Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), Trump’s pick for CIA director; Reince Priebus, who will be White House chief of staff; Michael T. Flynn, who will be national security advisor; K.T. McFarland, his pick for deputy national security advisor; and Tom Bossert, whom Trump has chosen for his homeland security advisor.
Last Friday, the White House cited the intelligence when they expelled 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives, closed two Russian compounds in New York and Maryland, and expanded sanctions on Moscow.
Intelligence officials also briefed eight congressional leaders Friday morning on the completed classified report, which was given to Obama on Thursday.
"It was really quite a stunning disclosure," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said after the briefing.
Clapper, Brennan, Rogers and Comey will testify Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to committee Chairman Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.).
In a statement late Friday, Burr said Russia had conducted a “direct and aggressive covert influence campaign” during the election.
“This is a troubling chapter in an ongoing story,” he added, “and I expect that our nation's leaders will counter these activities appropriately.”
4:30 p.m.: Updated with additional details from the intelligence report and other changes throughout.
1 p.m.: This article was updated with Trump’s response after a meeting with U.S. intelligence chiefs.
9:05 a.m: Updated with details about the classified briefing to congressional leaders.
This story was originally published at 7:55 a.m.