How Trump’s Apparatchiks Are Erasing Russia’s Role in the Election

Evasions, brushoffs, innuendos, contortions, rationalizations, and attacks.

Trump Priebus

Donald Trump and Reince Priebus address supporters during his election-night rally in Manhattan, on Nov. 9, 2016

Mike Segar/Reuters,Paneikon/MED

Donald Trump has the best people. They’re loyal, attentive, and hardworking. “I would take anything that the president asked me to do,” said Sean Spicer, the communications director of the Republican National Committee, in a Fox News interview on Thursday. “I’d shovel the driveway of the South Lawn or mow the lawn. Whatever he asks.” On another Fox show, Spicer addressed reports that he would soon be named White House press secretary: “If he asks me to do anything, including sweep the driveway, I’ll do it.”

Spicer and his colleagues are already at work on Trump’s first cleanup job: scrubbing away Russia’s role in the 2016 election. On Friday, the Washington Post quoted a memo from CIA Director John Brennan that says the CIA, FBI, and Director of National Intelligence have reached a “strong consensus among us on the scope, nature, and intent of Russian interference in our presidential election.” ABC News disclosed some of the evidence behind that assessment, including the hackers’ use of a Cyrillic keyboard and an internet address employed in previous Russian infiltrations. Trump, however, continues to dismiss the story, fearing that inquiries into the hack will taint his legitimacy. So out come the Trump minions to protect their boss. Here’s how they’re trying to shovel the story away.

1. Don’t believe it till the CIA shows you the evidence. “Where is the evidence?” demanded Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, in a Sunday interview on Face the Nation. Conway, who is expected to work for Trump inside or outside the White House, dared the CIA to go public: “If Director Brennan and others at the top are serious about turning over evidence to we, the American people, they should do that.” RNC chairman Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, made the same argument on Fox News Sunday: “If there is this conclusive opinion among all of these intelligence agencies, then they should issue a report, or they should stand in front of a camera and make the case.” Priebus challenged the agencies to “be straight with the American people” about “their opinion as to who, what, where, and how this all happened.”

2. It would be treacherous of the CIA to show you the evidence. While demanding public revelation of the “who, what, where, and how,” Priebus rebuked intelligence agencies for talking to the press. To have these assessments “leaked by people within the intelligence community to these newspapers or through some third-party source is not appropriate,” he warned. Conway, in the midst of her plea for transparency, paused to scold the agencies: “They’re talking to the media. That undermines our national security, our intelligence operations.”

3. Trump might have secret evidence that Russia is innocent. On Face the Nation, John Dickerson asked Conway whether Trump had evidence that Russia wasn’t behind the hack. She offered an ambiguous reply: “Well, the president-elect receives intelligence briefings that I am not privy to.”

4. Allegations against Russia are just a ploy by Democrats to change the subject. Speaking to Fox News on Friday, Spicer was asked about President Obama’s discussion of the Russia hack in a news conference earlier that day. Spicer said Democrats were trying to “deflect from what they brought to themselves.” The next day, on Fox and Friends, he gave the same answer to suggestions that the U.S. should investigate Russian interference: “The left is now trying to focus on delegitimizing the election. They lost. They lost because they didn’t have an effective message like Donald Trump. And I think that they should, instead of focusing on that—you know, [they] are trying to deflect and talk about this whole issue.”

5. Let’s change the subject to Democrats losing. Spicer’s “deflection” shtick is just one way to deflect questions about Russia. Another way is to pivot to “the real question.” On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace asked Priebus, “Does the president-elect accept the consensus of the intel community?” Priebus answered:

The real question is why the Democrats and why these electors and why MoveOn.org and all of these organizations are doing everything they can to delegitimize the outcome of the election. … They lost the election because they’re so completely out of touch with the American people that they’re so shell-shocked and they can’t believe it. And what is their response? Recounts, Russians, leaked CIA reports …  

Likewise, when Dickerson asked Conway about the Russia reports (“You have the CIA, the FBI, the director of national intelligence, now a number of Republicans, saying it’s clear that the Russians hacked”), she pulled out one of her trademark non sequiturs. “I’ll tell you what the un-intelligence briefing we all know is,” she retorted. “Hillary Clinton and her team spent $1.2 billion, lost an election they should have won, didn’t see us coming.”

6. Obama’s call to punish Russia is just another Democratic stunt. Dickerson asked Conway about Obama’s “decision to retaliate against the Russians for hacking into the election.” She replied: “It does seem to be a political response at this point, because it seems like the president is under pressure from Team Hillary, who can’t accept the election results.” Dickerson, taken aback, asked her whether she was dismissing the retaliation as political. Conway implied that it was: “President Obama could have, quote, retaliated months ago if they were actually concerned about this and concerned about this, quote, affecting the election. Whatever his motives are, what his action is, we’ll respect it as Americans.”

7. Democrats are confusing distinct questions. “They’re conflating whether Russia hacked into the emails [with] how it affected the election,” Conway told Dickerson. Spicer, in several interviews, offered the same complaint: that Democrats and the media were “conflating” whether Russia and other entities regularly probed for security flaws, whether Russia had found any in this case, and whether the hacks had affected the election.

8. Here, let me confuse you. While lecturing viewers about conflation, Spicer uses it to muddy inconvenient questions. Presented with reports that Russia hacked Democrats, he says they’re bogus because there’s no proof that the election’s outcome was changed. Presented with intelligence agencies’ conclusions about the hacks, he dismisses them by saying the agencies claimed voting machines weren’t compromised. On Friday, Spicer was asked about the agencies’ assessment that “Russia interfered in the election.” He brushed the story off: “This wouldn’t have happened if Hillary Clinton didn’t have a secret server.”

All of this is nonsense. Clinton’s server, the voting machines, and the DNC hack are three separate issues. Trump has no secret evidence of Russia’s innocence. He doesn’t even attend daily intelligence briefings. It’s ludicrous to tell intelligence agencies to shut up and then, in your next breath, demand that they stand in front of TV cameras and explain the “who, what, where, and how this all happened.”

But that doesn’t make these excuses meaningless. They’re highly instructive. When Trump’s aides dismiss intelligence as a plot to undermine the president with “recounts, Russians, [and] leaked CIA reports,” that tells you a lot about their disdain for national security and democratic accountability. When they belittle action against Russia as a “political response” by Democrats who “can’t accept the election results,” that shows you the extent to which they view Russia’s American enemies as Trump’s American enemies. With every evasion, brushoff, innuendo, contortion, rationalization, and attack, they’re working hard, in unison, to steer your attention away from Russia. I wonder why.