Trump still skeptical about Russian hacking
President-elect Donald Trump continued to insist this week that U.S. intelligence agencies had no proof for their conclusion that Russia-linked hackers had sought to influence the U.S. presidential election in his favor, even after President Obama announced a series of retaliatory measures against Moscow. While all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies now agree that “digital fingerprints” show that it was hackers working for the Kremlin who stole and released emails from senior Democrats during the election, the presidentelect has repeatedly disputed that assessment, and said it is “time to move on from the issue.” He claimed hacking was a “very hard thing to prove,” noted that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had denied Moscow’s involvement, and suggested that intelligence agencies had delayed briefing him on “so-called” Russian hacking because they needed more time to “build a case.” Trump said he would hear the agency heads out, but questioned their credibility by blaming them for intelligence failures leading up to the Iraq War.
Trump’s comments came after the Obama administration hit Russia with a series of reprisals for intruding in the election. The president ordered 35 Russian “intelligence operatives” to leave the U.S.; placed sanctions on two intelligence agencies, four individuals, three intelligence-linked companies, and two alleged hackers; and shuttered two Russian compounds in Maryland and New York allegedly being used for espionage activities. Obama said the measures are a “necessary and appropriate response” to the hacks and will be supplemented by covert actions. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan said that Russia has “sought to undermine” U.S. interests and that the retaliation was “overdue”; Sen. John McCain called for “more meaningful and stronger” sanctions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who insists his country has no connection to the hacking, said he wouldn’t expel any U.S. diplomats, and would wait until Trump took office before considering “any further steps.” The president-elect praised the Russian leader’s restraint, tweeting: “I always knew he was very smart!”
What the editorials said
Obama was right to retaliate against Russia’s outrageous intrusion in our elections, said The New York Times, but he should have acted sooner. There are also “legitimate questions” over whether this response will deter Russia. Putin himself won’t be affected, and sanctions will have little impact on Russian officials who “rarely travel to the United States or stash their assets here.” Still, Trump will now have to decide whether he will side with U.S. intelligence agencies “or his authoritarian friend in the Kremlin.”
It’s Obama’s weakness that landed us here in the first place, said The Wall Street Journal. His repeated refusal to stand up to Moscow—over the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of Ukraine, the meddling in Syria—clearly emboldened Putin to interfere with the U.S. election. Trump should take note. Unless he quits his “strange and dangerous habit of making excuses” for the Russian strongman, he risks becoming yet another Putin patsy.
Trump’s “dismissive response” to the hacking “deepens questions about his ties to Russia,” said The Washington Post. Is the president-elect’s business empire deeply indebted to Russian companies or oligarchs? During the campaign, were Trump aides having “secret communications” with Putin or his cronies? Trump’s “odd behavior” over Russia “cannot be easily explained.”
What the columnists said
“The U.S. doesn’t have a problem with Russia,” said Garry Kasparov in WashingtonPost.com.“It has a problem with Putin.” The former KGB officer is driven exclusively by a desire to retain his personal power, wealth, and influence. Weakening the U.S. and dividing the West is a critical part of his strategy, and cyberwar is just one of his tools. The only effective response to his aggression is go after him personally: “Target and expose the vast wealth Putin and his cronies hide abroad. Freeze their funds and their companies, revoke their visas.” The dictator will back off only if he fears suffering humiliation that will “endanger his hold on power.”
Not so fast, said Matt Taibbi in RollingStone.com. The intelligence agencies haven’t yet provided any specific, concrete evidence about Russia’s involvement in the hacks that can be independently verified. They’re asking us to take it on trust that they’re right, and some U.S. digital experts say the evidence is suggestive but inconclusive. The U.S. has been burned by the CIA in the past, and we should “avoid getting fooled again.”
Skepticism is always warranted, said Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal, but Trump was expressing admiration for Putin long before these hacking accusations surfaced. Maybe he sees the Russian strongman as a kindred spirit with whom he can forge “a cooperative relationship.” But there’s ample evidence that the Trump Organization is “entwined with Russian business interests,” and if Trump wants to dispel suspicion that his strange affection for Putin is “driven by less-than-honest motives,” he needs to come clean about those ties.
Trump is now in an “awkward position,” said Zeeshan Aleem in Vox.com. Lifting these new sanctions would be the easiest way to “warm U.S.-Russian relations and gain Putin’s trust”—but doing so would be a rejection of “the unanimous and explicit findings of the intelligence agencies he oversees.” Obama has boxed his successor in.
Intelligence chiefs are planning to publicly release a version of the hacking briefing they gave to Obama and Trump, said Tal Kopan in CNN.com. Officials say the report will “include newly declassified material” that will shed light on why the agencies are so convinced Russia was responsible. Meanwhile, tensions over how to handle Russia’s hacking and Trump’s refusal to acknowledge it are causing “an intraparty split” among Republicans, said Paul Sonne in The Wall Street Journal.Russia hawks, led by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, want broad investigations into Putin’s cyberattacks. That puts them on a collision course with Republicans who don’t want to undermine the president-elect and his advisers, who see Putin as a potential partner in “a graver global conflict with Islamist extremism.”