Why Trump’s denial on Russian hacking is so dangerous

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, left, listens as National Security Agency chief Adm. Michael Rogers testifies Thursday.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, left, listens as National Security Agency chief Adm. Michael Rogers testifies Thursday. Associated Press

Whom does the president-elect trust more – the despotic Vladimir Putin and nefarious Julian Assange, or our own intelligence officials who risk their lives to defend America?

The fact that we even have to ask that question shows how much the world will change when Donald Trump is sworn in on Jan. 20 – and how much more risky it will be.

In a remarkable congressional hearing Thursday, the nation’s top intelligence officials testified unequivocally and emphatically that Russia, at Putin’s direction, interfered in the 2016 presidential election and is waging a broad campaign of cyberattacks to damage U.S. government, military, diplomatic and commercial operations.

You’d think that would be of paramount concern to the incoming commander in chief, but he seems more worried that the Russian hack diminishes his Nov. 8 victory.

In a series of irresponsible tweets and statements, Trump has questioned the conclusion of Russian meddling and the competence of our intelligence agencies. On Tuesday, he tweeted: “The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!”

That wasn’t true, officials said. He followed up on Wednesday with a tweet embracing Assange’s claim that Russia wasn’t the source of hacked emails posted on WikiLeaks from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. U.S. officials say there is conclusive evidence that Russia provided the material through a third party. A declassified version of their report, released to the public Friday, concluded that Putin ordered a campaign to hurt Clinton and undermine faith in U.S. democracy and that Russia had a clear preference for Trump.

Trump, who was briefed by the intelligence chiefs on Friday, appears to be backing down, somewhat. Just before the hearing began Thursday, he tweeted: “The dishonest media likes saying that I am in Agreement with Julian Assange -- wrong. I simply state what he states, it is for the people to make up their own minds as to the truth. The media lies to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence’ when in fact I am a big fan!”

Whatever spin he tries, severe damage has already been done to his relationship with the intelligence community and to public confidence in it.

This is an issue of national security, not politics. Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina deserve credit for recognizing that.

“Every American should be alarmed” by Russia’s “unprecedented attack on our democracy,” said McCain, who called the hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the third day of the new Congress.

Graham urged Trump not to undermine intelligence officers, and criticized him for citing Assange, whom he called “no friend of America” or of democracy.

McCain and Graham also did the right thing by leading a bipartisan delegation to the Baltic states to reassure them last week that America is committed to NATO and would come to their defense if Russian tanks roll across the border.

Trump has brought that into question as well with his admiration for Putin and his lack of enthusiasm for NATO, a bedrock of America’s security since World War II.

Starting in 2009, President Barack Obama tried to reset relations with Russia to friendlier terms. But that strategy floundered with its annexation of Crimea, its aggressiveness in Ukraine and its brutality in Syria. Obama imposed economic sanctions on Russia, most recently in retaliation for its hacking.

As president, Trump must be clear-eyed about the threats facing America, and that means relying on our intelligence agencies.

Only two weeks before he is sworn in, we can’t be certain that he understands that. Of all the worries about Trump, that is one of the most alarming.