The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Political witch hunt’: Trump isn’t backing off his Russia hacking doubts, no matter the evidence

President-elect Donald Trump shades his eyes while looking at supporters during a rally in Fayetteville, N.C., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Placeholder while article actions load

This post has been updated

President-elect Donald Trump gets a long-awaited intelligence briefing on Russia's alleged hacking to influence the 2016 election on Friday. And his top spokesman assured us that Trump will go into it with an open mind — despite a string of Trump tweets that included a litany of complaints about the hacking investigation and its conclusions.

Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Friday that Trump will attend the briefing "prepared to listen and understand" but also with a "healthy skepticism."

Emphasis, it turns out, on the healthy skepticism.

Trump has now made clear he intends to keep fighting the intelligence community's findings, telling the New York Times that it amounts to a "political witch hunt." The interview was notably conducted before Trump's briefing Friday and signals Trump won't be adjusting his tone.

Then Trump tweeted that he wanted an investigation into the leaking of details of the upcoming intelligence report to NBC News.

Any illusions that Trump will suddenly bow to the intelligence community's findings should now be erased.

Thus far, of course, Trump's skepticism has been "healthier" than just about any Republican's in Washington. While some in his party are suggesting that the situation has been overblown or politicized in an effort to de-legitimize Trump, almost none are questioning, as Trump has, the very idea that Russia was even behind the hacking. Trump has also gone further than just about anyone by suggesting that the U.S. intelligence community is trying to "build a case" against him, essentially pitting himself against the entire community.

But how tenable is this for Trump? How long can he go on questioning the information he receives from intelligence briefings, as he seems intent upon doing?

Blumenthal says comparing intelligence on Russian interference with the 2016 election to the 2003 weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is "a red herring." (Video: Reuters)

Trump is likely to find it harder and harder to keep up his public skepticism as details of the intelligence community's report being presented to Trump on Friday become public. On Thursday evening, The Washington Post reported that intercepts caught top Russian officials congratulating themselves on Trump's election win. In addition, U.S. officials have reportedly identified the "actors" who delivered the emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and a top Hillary Clinton aide to WikiLeaks, which put them into the public domain. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the White House will release an unclassified version of the report early next week, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) now says some of it could come Friday.

Basically, we're moving beyond the stage in which we know only what the intelligence community has concluded — thanks to leaks from anonymous sources to journalists — and into specifically why officials have concluded it. And the details (at least the unclassified ones) will be out there for everyone to consume, not just President Obama and President-elect Trump.

Of course, Trump seems intent upon muddying the waters in whatever way he can. He's got a clear and unmistakable interest in sowing doubt, given the fact that acknowledging Russia's alleged advocacy for him leads to the inevitable question of whether he would have won without it. And he's only got to hold out two more weeks until he oversees the intelligence community and the Obama administration is no longer in charge of releasing such reports.

What's more, Trump has rarely let inconvenient facts get in the way of his public statements. And he's shown little inclination to change his stripes as president. This is who he is.

Still, Trump has already been straining to keep reasonable doubt alive — in a way that's leaving plenty of Republicans uncomfortable. He's also been forced to take an increasingly adversarial position toward the entire intelligence apparatus that he will soon oversee, which will ramp up even more if he continues to harbor public doubts after Friday.

Cyber Command Chief Admiral Mike Rogers expresses concerned that a lack of confidence from leadership could cause the intelligence "workforce" to quit. (Video: Reuters)

To this point, the nature of the intelligence-gathering process and its lack of 100 percent, iron-clad conclusions have given Trump the plausible deniability he needs to stir up uncertainty. But as the publicly available evidence builds, that could suddenly become a very difficult facade to keep up.