President-elect Donald Trump accepts the conclusion by the intelligence community that Russia was to blame for a string of cyber attacks during the presidential election, incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said Sunday. Trump “is not denying that entities in Russia were behind this particular hacking campaign,” Priebus said on Fox News Sunday. Priebus later said on CBS “no one is disputing” that “this particular hack was perpetrated by Russian entities.”
The words marked a significant shift for Trump, who has repeatedly brushed off the intelligence community’s claims that Russians were to blame for hacking the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta.
During the interview, it’s clear Fox’s Chris Wallace knows Priebus is saying something significant and repeats the question at least three times, seemingly in an effort to make sure Priebus can’t later said he was misunderstood. “I think he accepts the findings, Chris,” Priebus says at first. Then Wallace rephrases the question slightly: “Well, sure. I mean, he’s not denying that entities in Russia were behind this particular campaign.” And then Wallace goes to pains to get Priebus to actually say the word “Russia”:
Wallace: Who do you blame more for this? Who do you blame more for this, Reince? Do you blame Putin and the Kremlin? Or do you blame the DNC? Who is the primary actor here?
Priebus: Well, listen, the primary actor is the foreign entity that’s perpetrating the crime to begin with, no doubt about it.
Wallace: Which was? Which was?
Priebus: I’m not denying that.
Wallace: Which was?
Priebus: I’m not denying that. I’m not denying that.
Wallace: And what was that foreign entity?
Priebus: The thing is—Russia.
Following an intelligence briefing on Friday, Trump grouped Russia as one of several countries trying to hack U.S. computer networks. And he later said only “fools” think it isn’t a good idea to improve relations with Russia.
The incoming White House chief of staff though said that Trump could very well consider sanctions against Russia. The president-elect will call on the intelligence community to recommend what should be done next “and whatever those recommendations are will be discussed and actions may be taken.” Still, that doesn’t mean “there’s anything wrong with trying to have a good relationship with Russia and other countries around the world.”
Just like Trump, Priebus also blamed the DNC itself for the hack, characterizing it as “a sitting duck” because it lacked security infrastructure and repeatedly ignored the FBI’s warnings about possible intrusions into its system.
Priebus spoke as key Republican lawmakers also increased pressure on Trump not to be so cavalier about Russia’s hacking and to sanction the Kremlin for its efforts to affect the outcome of the presidential election. “I hope you will embrace the intelligence, you will join the Republicans and Democrats to push back against Russia to make sure this stops and doesn’t happen again,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a joint interview with Sen. John McCain on NBC’s Meet the Press.
The two senators will be introducing fresh sanctions on Russia to “give President Trump an opportunity to make Russia pay a price for interfering in our election so it will deter others in the future,” Graham said. “I hope he will take advantage of it.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, said that Trump’s efforts to relaunch relations with Russia are hardly unusual but would likely end in disappointment. “I don’t think it’s all that unusual for a new president to want to get along with the Russians—I remember George W. Bush having the same hope,” McConnell told CBS’s Face the Nation. “My suspicion is these hopes will be dashed pretty quickly—the Russians are clearly a big adversary and they demonstrated it by trying to mess around in our election.”