Why Does Donald Trump Continue to Defend Russia and Attack U.S. Intelligence?

If collusion doesn’t explain his behavior, what does?

Trump Tower
Donald Trump speaks after his meeting with TV personality Steve Harvey on Friday.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

I don’t believe Donald Trump colluded with Russia to hack the Democratic National Committee. I don’t think anyone working on Trump’s behalf met with anyone working for Vladimir Putin. That allegation—which appeared in clearly erroneous form in the sketchy “dossier” published by BuzzFeed on Tuesday—could turn out to be true. But nothing I’ve seen so far, dossier included, has convinced me.

But that leaves all of us with a problem: How do we explain the overtly pro-Russian behavior of Trump and his surrogates? If they’re not Russian puppets, why do they work so hard to defend Putin and Russia against American investigators and reporters? Why do they divert blame to other countries and victims of the hack? Why, instead of targeting the Russian intelligence agencies that infiltrated us, do they attack the American intelligence agencies that exposed the Russians?

This behavior has been going on for months. In June, Trump openly invited Putin to hack more Democratic emails. Trump’s allies excused this as a joke, but Trump kept going. In July, he defended Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Even after the election, and after U.S. intelligence agencies had reported that senior Russian officials directed the hack “to interfere with the US election process,” Trump ridiculed the intelligence agencies and scoffed: “They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody.”

Last week’s intelligence briefing on the hack was supposed to bring Trump around. “If, after the briefing, he is still unsure,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, “that will shake me to my core about his judgment.” But the briefing has changed almost nothing. Trump continues to belittle the intelligence, question Russia’s guilt, divert scrutiny, and attack the intelligence community. This month, as evidence against Russia has mounted, here’s how Trump and his team have responded.

Tuesday, Jan. 3: Trump tweets, “The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case.” Trump’s claim was false: The briefing wasn’t delayed. But the scare quotes conveyed that he didn’t think the case against Russia was based on reliable intelligence and that he was willing to undercut that case publicly, even before the briefing.

Wednesday, Jan. 4: Trump accuses the press of a “double standard” for investigating Russia but not Hillary Clinton. He also tweets that Julian Assange, the fugitive from justice whose WikiLeaks site published the hacked material, “said Russians did not give him the info.” Vice President–elect Mike Pence, when asked about Trump’s citation of Assange as a credible witness, defends his boss:

The president-elect has expressed his very sincere and healthy American skepticism about intelligence conclusions. … Given some of the intelligence failures of recent years, the president-elect has made it clear to the American people that he’s skeptical about conclusions from the bureaucracy, and I think the American people hear him loud and clear.

Taken together, the statements from Trump and Pence implied that the public should place less faith in the intelligence agencies than in Assange.

Thursday, Jan. 5: At a Senate hearing, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, testifies that new evidence—to be detailed in a classified setting the next day—has increased the already high confidence of the U.S. intelligence community that senior Russian officials directed the hack. The evidence begins to leak that evening. Around 7 p.m. Eastern, the Washington Post reports, “American intelligence agencies intercepted communications in the aftermath of the election in which Russian officials congratulated themselves on the outcome.” The Post also discloses two other lines of evidence: “the identification of ‘actors’ involved in delivering stolen Democratic emails to the WikiLeaks website, and disparities in the levels of effort Russian intelligence entities devoted to penetrating and exploiting sensitive information stored on Democratic and Republican campaign networks.”

Despite the Post article, Trump reaffirms his doubt that the DNC “was supposedly hacked by Russia.” He tweets: “So how and why are they so sure about hacking if they never even requested an examination of the computer servers? What is going on?”

Friday, Jan. 6: In morning TV interviews, Trump counselor and spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway says Trump “can’t agree with the rush to judgment.” She makes a firm prediction: It’s “unproven, and it will be unproven, that what Russia did or did not do affected the election results.” She accuses President Obama of expelling Russian diplomats prematurely. Shortly after Conway’s interviews, Trump tells the New York Times that inquiries into Russia’s role are “a political witch hunt.”

Around noon, as Trump is about to be briefed, NBC News confirms that the evidence outlined by the Post is in the 50-page classified report he will receive. According to NBC, the report “says that U.S. intelligence picked up senior Russian officials celebrating Donald Trump’s win.”

That afternoon, Trump is briefed on the classified report. A declassified version released to the public says Russia’s military intelligence directorate, GRU, used online fronts to release hacked material through WikiLeaks. The report lays out a timeline of Russian hacks into the DNC, along with “cyber operations aimed at the US election.” It also says, “Russian intelligence accessed elements of multiple state or local electoral boards.” Evidence for these charges, including the intercepts cited by the Post and NBC, is confined to the classified version.

Shortly after the briefing, Trump issues a statement. He says nothing about what Russia did specifically. “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,” he says, “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.” The Associated Press reports that, in an interview after the briefing, Trump “declined to say whether he accepted [intelligence officials’] assertion that Russia had meddled in the election on his behalf.”

Hours after the briefing, Conway appears on Fox News. She repeats Trump’s claim that the discussion of Russian hacking is “a political witch hunt.” Responding to a question about the intelligence officials who prepared the Russia report, she says Trump “will convene his own panel. … He wants to talk to his own intelligence community. He wants to talk to his own advisers about what makes sense moving forward.”

Conway also asserts that at Thursday’s hearing, Clapper said the hack “did not influence votes.” This was false. In his testimony, Clapper said that as a matter of jurisdiction, “The intelligence community can’t gauge the impact that it [the hack] had on choices the electorate made.”

Saturday, Jan. 7: Two days after the hearing and a day after receiving the classified report and the briefing, Trump tweets: “Intelligence stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results.” Again, this is false. Clapper made no such statement, and the unclassified version of the report said: “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.” The report did say, however, that Russia’s interference influenced the course of the campaign: “We assess the Russian intelligence services would have seen their election influence campaign as at least a qualified success because of their perceived ability to impact public discussion.”

In his Saturday tweets, Trump dismisses the whole inquiry and defends Russia. First he writes, “Only reason the hacking of the poorly defended DNC is discussed is that the loss by the Dems was so big that they are totally embarrassed!” Then he argues: “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it is bad!”

Sunday, Jan. 8: Conway again goes on TV to accuse Obama of punishing Russia prematurely. Five times she insists that Russia’s interference is only “alleged.” She mocks the notion that “this is so important to our intelligence and our security.” Three times, she repeats her false claim about Clapper and the intelligence report.

Conway also adds a new claim. “I don’t want any of your viewers to be misled into thinking that somehow … the Kremlin was dealing with any of the hackers and bringing that information back to Moscow,” she says. How would Conway know whether any of the hackers talked to anyone in the Kremlin? How would she know what information was or wasn’t brought to Moscow? She didn’t explain.

Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman and Trump’s incoming chief of staff, echoes Conway’s charges. In Sunday morning TV interviews, he expresses dismay that Obama, while going easier on China, has imposed “the biggest sanctions that we’ve ever put out on Russia. … So there’s a political angle here … that is clearly politically motivated to discredit the victory of President-elect Trump.” Trump makes the same point, retweeting a line from Conway: “We certainly don’t want intelligence interfering with politics.”

Monday, Jan. 9: Conway escalates her attack. She claims that there’s “no smoking gun” in the intelligence report on Russia and that “there weren’t any fireworks” in “the intelligence briefing on Friday.” She accuses Trump’s critics of “selective outrage about Russia.” Conway and Trump’s incoming communications director, Sean Spicer, deflect questions about further investigation of the Russian hack, saying it has been investigated enough.

Tuesday, Jan. 10: In a taped appearance with Seth Meyers, Conway further describes and belittles the contents of the intelligence briefing. “I have to tell you, there wasn’t very compelling information in terms of the nexus that many people would like to make between the alleged hacking and the election results,” she says. She denies “that the Russians interfered in the election successfully, that they disrupted our democracy, which is really what we should all care about.”

That night, BuzzFeed publishes the uncorroborated dossier. In response, Trump returns to his theme that the whole controversy is bogus. He tweets: “FAKE NEWS - A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”

Wednesday, Jan. 11: As evidence that allegations of his collusion with Russia are false, Trump quotes the Russian government. He tweets: “Russia just said the unverified report paid for by political opponents is ‘A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION, UTTER NONSENSE.’ Very unfair!”

In TV interviews, Conway attacks not just the dossier but the whole Russia controversy. On CBS This Morning, she says “the Russian hacking issue is fading out of view” because the “smoking gun that was promised” hasn’t been produced. On ABC’s Good Morning America, she repeatedly brushes aside questions about Russia’s guilt.

While shifting blame from Russia to other countries, Conway accuses the intelligence community of leaking about Trump and Russia for political reasons. She declares: “Just to smear the president-elect of the United States, we now have intelligence officials divulging information that they are sworn not to divulge.”

At a midday press conference, Trump contradicts findings in the intelligence report, and he repeatedly diverts questions about Russia to the broader problem of hacking by many countries. Initially, as part of this maneuver, he concedes Russian guilt in the DNC hack: “I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.” Later, he hedges. When a reporter describes Trump as having affirmed that “Russia indeed was responsible for the hacking of the DNC and John Podesta’s emails,” Trump interjects: “It could have been others also.”

Another reporter notes that according to the intelligence report, Putin ordered the hack “to help you in the election. Do you accept that part of the finding? And will you undo what President Obama did to punish the Russians for this, or will you keep it in place?” Trump replies: “Well, if Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability.”

In another round of TV interviews, Conway repeats her charge that Obama and the media are applying a double standard—treating Russia more harshly than China—and that they’re ascribing “outsized importance” to hacking because “the election results were not what they expected.”

Thursday, Jan. 12: On NBC’s Today show, Conway is asked several times whether Trump believes Clapper’s statement that the dossier was not leaked by the intelligence community. She refuses to say that Trump believes it or that she believes it. She repeats that “intelligence officials or other people are leaking to the media” for “political purposes.”

Friday, Jan. 13: Trump tweets: “Totally made up facts by sleazebag political operatives, both Democrats and Republicans - FAKE NEWS! Russia says nothing exists. Probably released by ‘Intelligence’ even knowing there is no proof, and never will be.” The tweets imply that he doesn’t accept Clapper’s statement, that the intelligence agencies leaked material to hurt Trump, and that they did so knowing that the material was false. Again, Trump invokes Russia’s denials as evidence. In addition, he repeats his objection that Clinton “should never have been allowed to run.”

That’s what Trump and his advisers have said in the days leading up to, and following, his intelligence briefing on Russia’s interference in the election. They have conceded as little as possible. They have belittled and lied about the contents of the intelligence report. They have attacked the credibility of U.S. intelligence officials and have accused them of leaking falsehoods “just to smear the president-elect.” They have denied any link between the hackers and the Kremlin. They have criticized the sanctions against Russia as unfair. They have disputed the need for further investigation. They have dismissed the whole controversy as political and fake.

I don’t attribute any of this to back-channel phone calls or an alleged secret meeting in Prague. But I’m at a loss to explain, in the absence of collusion, why Trump and his coterie would behave this way, and why Pence would go join in their attacks on the intelligence “bureaucracy.” Something is deeply wrong with the incoming president-elect and his White House team. They seem not to understand, or to care, that their job is to represent and protect the United States, not Russia. Their behavior in the past two weeks makes this problem indisputable. Until we know more, they cannot be trusted.