After the third presidential debate, most of the conversation focused on Donald Trump's disinterest in affirming that he would accept the results of the election. Given the outcome of the race, though, the more important exchange may have been this one:

TRUMP: [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, from everything I see, has no respect for this person.
HILLARY CLINTON: Well, that's because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States.
TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet.
CLINTON: And it's pretty clear …
TRUMP: You're the puppet!
CLINTON: It's pretty clear you won't admit …
TRUMP: No, you're the puppet.
CLINTON: … that the Russians have engaged in cyberattacks against the United States of America, that you encouraged espionage against our people, that you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up NATO, do whatever he wants to do, and that you continue to get help from him, because he has a very clear favorite in this race.

Well, before Election Day, Clinton and her allies seized on reports that the Russian government was trying to disrupt the presidential election, including by hacking the Democratic National Committee and the email of Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta. They argued that Russia was doing so specifically to bolster Trump's chances. On Friday, The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence agencies came to the same conclusion about Russia's motive before the election.

Trump and his allies spent the weekend undermining that report. On Monday morning, Trump himself tweeted a response.

It was brought up before the election, of course.

It was brought up in that third debate. It was brought up in the second debate, too, when Clinton raised the subject. “We have never in the history of our country been in a situation where an adversary, a foreign power, is working so hard to influence the outcome of the election,” she said. “And believe me, they're not doing it to get me elected. They're doing it to try to influence the election for Donald Trump.”

Trump responded to that, saying that “maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia. And the reason they blame Russia because they think they're trying to tarnish me with Russia. I know nothing about Russia. I know — I know about Russia, but I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia.”

It also came up in the first debate. Clinton raised the subject of Russian hacking, prompting Trump's soon-infamous reply: “I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, okay?”

Clinton raised it then because Trump had been asked about Russian hacking at a news conference July 27. “It's just a total deflection, this whole thing with Russia,” Trump said then. This was also when he called for Russia to release emails that it may have stolen from Clinton: “By the way, they hacked — they probably have her 33,000 emails. I hope they do. They probably have her 33,000 emails that she lost and deleted because you'd see some beauties there. So let's see.”

The question of Russian hacking began in June, in fact. Documents from the breach were posted online shortly before the Democratic National Convention, prompting the resignation of the party's chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).

Other members of Trump's party accepted the idea that Russian hacking was playing a role in the election. Politico compiled quotes from a number of Republicans in October arguing that it was likely that Russia was trying to steal information from political actors. A few weeks before the election, House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) said that he had told Trump that U.S. intelligence agencies thought that Russia was behind the hacks — but that Trump dismissed the idea.

Among the Republicans who didn't? Trump's running mate, Mike Pence. “I think there's more and more evidence that implicates Russia,” Pence said on “Meet the Press” three weeks before the election.

One of the challenges with Trump's relying on Twitter as his primary means of communicating publicly is that he is constrained by its character limit. For example, perhaps Trump's question about the subject of hacking not coming up before the election was meant specifically to ask why there was no public acknowledgment of Russia's goal before the election. The Post report included a description of a meeting between President Obama and congressional leaders aimed at reaching consensus on whether to release more information about Russia's goal; without that consensus, no announcement was made.

Why was there no consensus? From our report:

[Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.
Some of the Republicans in the briefing also seemed opposed to the idea of going public with such explosive allegations in the final stages of an election, a move that they argued would only rattle public confidence and play into Moscow’s hands.

In other words, part of the rationale may have been to prevent the information from swaying the election — a reason that surely Trump would embrace.

The question is less why the subject did not come up before Election Day, because it did, and more why Trump stands virtually alone in his assessment of what role Russia may have played. On Monday, McConnell reiterated his support for the work of the CIA — work that, in his initial response to The Post's story, Trump undercut.

It's also not necessarily the case that it is “very hard to determine who was doing the hacking” unless you catch the hacker in the act. But we'll leave Trump's incipient fight with the FBI for another day.