For the first time in weeks, President-elect Donald Trump's team has been able to play some offense when it comes to allegations of Russian hacking. BuzzFeed's decision to publish a dossier full of unverified and sometimes over-the-top salacious claims commissioned by Trump's political opponents has proven a controversial one, allowing Trump to credibly claim persecution by the media.
But even as he and his advisers have found their footing a bit, they just can't help but overextend themselves. In recent days, they've made claims and suggestions that just don't square with the facts and/or strain credulity.
It's almost as if their boss's tendency to bring a bazooka to a knife fight has filtered down. Below, a few examples:
Trump claimed James R. Clapper Jr. denounced the “false and fictitious” dossier
On Wednesday night, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. issued a statement on the dossier published by BuzzFeed, saying he had spoken with Trump. Clapper expressed his “profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press” and said “we both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security.”
The next morning, Trump tweeted the following:
James Clapper called me yesterday to denounce the false and fictitious report that was illegally circulated. Made up, phony facts.Too bad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2017
But Clapper did nothing of the sort. He didn't “denounce” the report — only the fact that it had been released publicly. And in fact, in the same statement, Clapper made clear that he couldn't say whether the claims were “false and fictitious” and defended its circulation in intelligence circles:
The [intelligence community] has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions. However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.
Kellyanne Conway's interview with Anderson Cooper
In fighting against the dossier, the Trump team has attacked both BuzzFeed and CNN, which originally reported upon the existence of the document claiming Russia had compromising information on Trump — but didn't publish the document itself. And in doing so, they've often conflated the two.
At Wednesday's news conference, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer got the ball rolling, saying “The fact that BuzzFeed and CNN made the decision to run with this unsubstantiated claim is a sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks.” But CNN's claim wasn't unsubstantiated; it was matched by reporting from many other news organizations and has since been even more substantiated.
Then, throughout a 25-minute interview with Anderson Cooper on Wednesday night (full transcript here), top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway went hard after CNN and, in doing so, made some pretty questionable claims and suggestions.
First, Conway suggested repeatedly that CNN had linked to BuzzFeed's report, but to this point there's no evidence that it did. CNN did link to its own story about BuzzFeed's decision, but neither story currently links to BuzzFeed's controversial one.
And second, after quibbling with CNN's characterization that Trump had been briefed on the dossier — NBC News had reported one source told it Trump was not verbally briefed on it, even as the dossier was provided to him — she seemed to suggest it's possible the document wasn't even provided to Trump.
CONWAY: What if it's not in the briefing documents, Anderson? What will CNN do?
COOPER: Well, if our report is wrong, we'll acknowledge that.
CONWAY: Really? Will heads roll, because they didn’t after the election when all the polling [was] wrong, all the pundits were wrong?
. . . CONWAY: I’m asking — I just don't think that you'll clean house if the report is wrong, if there wasn't a two-page appendix, because you haven't cleaned house yet. Not as the outlet ...
COOPER: What you think and what is true are not necessarily the same thing. So, I’m trying to figure out from you what you can say is true and what is not. And you cannot — you cannot take issue with any specific that we have reported. I’ve yet to hear you say specifically that is not true.
CONWAY: It's not true.
COOPER: It’s not true that those were briefing documents?
CONWAY: Here’s what is true.
COOPER: It’s not true that that was in any of the briefing documents? You’re saying that categorically? How do you know that?
CONWAY: It's true you have no evidence of it. Other than unnamed sources, you don't have the briefing documents. That’s what’s true, because they would not have access to the briefing documents.
Conway later added: “If it turns out that the two pages are not true, do not exist somehow, then CNN will take corrective measures about that?”
To be clear, the document's existence and presentation to Trump is something that was widely reported after CNN broke the story, including by The Washington Post and the New York Times. And now, since Conway's interview, Vice President Biden has confirmed that he and President Obama were also briefed on the document. And now multiple reports — from CNN, ABC News and NBC News — indicate FBI Director James B. Comey had a one-on-one conversation with Trump about the document after last Friday's intelligence briefing.
So it's completely unclear why Conway would cast doubt on its very existence — or why she and Spicer would suggest CNN's reporting was unsubstantiated. Taking issue with the decision to publish is one thing; if you're casting doubt upon the information itself, you better have done your homework.
Claiming that the intelligence said that Russia had no impact
We get it. The reason Trump doesn't want to concede that Russia hacked to influence the 2016 election in his favor is because it inherently casts doubt on whether he would have won without it. But in recent days, he and his team have taken this too far, claiming that the intelligence community said that Russia had no impact. It's just not true.
Trump tweeted this on Saturday:
Intelligence stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results. Voting machines not touched!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 7, 2017
On Sunday, Conway repeated the claim to CNN's Jake Tapper. “If you read the full report, they make very clear, Mr. Clapper in his testimony made very clear on Thursday under oath that the — that any attempt, any aspiration to influence our elections failed,” Conway said. “They were not successful in doing that.”
Then, in response to the CNN report, incoming Trump deputy national security adviser K.T. MacFarland repeated the claim. “I think I’d just say what [Clapper] said, which is that nothing the Russians did had any effect on the outcome,” she said Tuesday shortly after CNN's report.
As I wrote this weekend, this claim is just bogus. The report does say that Russia didn't appear to penetrate the actual voting process — voting machines, etc. But it does not weigh in on the question of whether Russia actually influenced the outcome through its propaganda effort. In fact, it states explicitly that it's not making that determination:
We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The U.S. intelligence community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze U.S. political processes or U.S. public opinion.
Claims like this one and the above simply don't pass the smell test, and the fact that the Trump team continues to use them suggests they don't have anything better to fight back with.
There is a legitimate debate to be had about whether this dossier should ever have seen the light of day or even have been reported upon in the first place; that would be fair. But stretching the arguments like this makes it seem like Trump and his team don't have a leg to stand on in this whole matter.