The hackers, he suggested, may have been Chinese. Or some 400-pound guy sitting on his bed. Again and again, he insisted, Russian interference was a hoax — a fiction created by Democrats as an excuse for losing an election they should have won.
When Donald Trump finally acknowledged publicly that Russians had hacked Democratic emails and interfered in the 2016 presidential election, the then-president-elect immediately regretted it. He confided to advisers that he did not believe the intelligence. The last thing Trump wanted to do was to endorse the notion that his victory may have been caused by any force other than his own strategy, message and charisma.
“Russia talk is FAKE NEWS put out by the Dems, and played up by the media, in order to mask the big election defeat and the illegal leaks!” Trump tweeted last Feb. 26.
But Trump’s own Justice Department has concluded otherwise. A 37-page federal indictment released Friday afternoon spells out in exhaustive detail a three-year Russian plot to disrupt America’s democracy and boost Trump’s campaign, dealing a fatal blow to one of the president’s favorite talking points.
A Russia “hoax” this was not.
The indictment — signed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and announced by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, both of whom Trump has at times mused about wanting to fire — reveals that the scope of Russia’s alleged efforts to help Trump defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was extraordinary.
Even Trump seemed to partly concede the point Friday, acknowledging Russia’s election interference while still minimizing its effects.
“The results of the election were not impacted,” he tweeted. “The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion!”
John Brennan, who was CIA director at the time of the election, said on Twitter that the indictments reveal the extent of the Russian campaign. “Claims of a ‘hoax’ in tatters,” he tweeted. “My take: Implausible that Russian actions did not influence the views and votes of at least some Americans.”
According to the federal charges, Russian operatives spread pro-Trump and anti-
Clinton propaganda. They posed as Americans to coordinate and infiltrate political activities. They organized grass-roots rallies. They paid for a cage large enough to hold an actress impersonating Clinton in a prison uniform. They stoked racial tensions and sowed social discord.
“We have known that Russians meddled in the election, but these indictments detail the extent of the subterfuge,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a statement. “These Russians engaged in a sinister and systematic attack on our political system. It was a conspiracy to subvert the process, and take aim at democracy itself. Today’s announcement underscores why we need to follow the facts and work to protect the integrity of future elections.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which has been investigating Russian meddling, said in a statement, “The indictment reaffirms what our intelligence community concluded, what our committee’s investigation has borne out, and what President Trump denies: that Russia interfered in our election in an effort to assist his presidential campaign and harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
Mueller’s indictment came three days after the nation’s top intelligence chiefs warned in Senate testimony that Russia is targeting the 2018 midterm elections in a continuing effort to disrupt the U.S. political system.
But the intelligence community’s warnings have gone largely unheeded in the White House.
During the first 13 months of his presidency, Trump has rejected the evidence that Russia waged an assault on a pillar of American democracy — something many in his administration regard as objective reality — and has sought to discredit the case that Russia poses a threat to the United States. White House officials have said this is partly because Trump wants to forge a productive partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin to tackle problems in North Korea, Iran and other hot spots.
Trump has never convened a Cabinet-level meeting on Russian interference and has resisted or attempted to undo efforts to hold Moscow to account, such as additional penalties imposed last August by Congress. On the National Security Council, there has been an unspoken understanding that the president would see raising the Russia matter as a personal affront.
Trump’s skepticism of the intelligence about Russian interference and his administration’s handling of the security threat were documented by The Washington Post in December, including efforts to explore the return of two Russian compounds in the United States that had been seized by President Barack Obama.
Trump’s doubts about Russia’s role in the election drew considerable attention in September 2016, at his first presidential debate with Clinton. Moderator Lester Holt of NBC News asked Trump about the hacking of emails from the Democratic National Committee.
“Who’s behind it? And how do we fight it?” Holt asked Trump.
“She’s saying ‘Russia, Russia, Russia,’ ” the candidate said, referencing Clinton. “But I don’t — maybe it was. 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?”
Thus began the 400-pound-couch-potato theory.
It was not until January 2017 that Trump’s advisers persuaded him to acknowledge for the first time that he believed Russians were behind the cyberattacks. The leaders of the nation’s intelligence agencies had traveled to New York on Jan. 6 to brief the president-elect on their findings. And in the days that followed, chief of staff Reince Priebus, son-in-law Jared Kushner and other advisers prodded Trump to accept the findings. They argued that he could affirm the validity of the intelligence without diminishing his electoral win.
Trump scoffed at the intelligence findings, arguing that they could not be trusted, but he finally relented. On Jan. 11, in the lobby of Trump Tower, the president-elect held a news conference and said it once and for all: “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia.”
Afterward, Trump told aides that he regretted the comments, and he has since hedged his words when asked about Russian interference. In November, during a trip to Asia, he met with Putin and apparently discussed the issue. Trump told reporters that he believed Putin’s denials.
“He said he didn’t meddle,” the president told reporters. “. . . Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”
Trump’s remarks roiled Washington, and the president later tried to backtrack. “As to whether I believe it or not,” he told reporters the next day, “I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership.”
Later that month, however, Trump was back to his old talking points. He tweeted on Nov. 26, “Since the first day I took office, all you hear is the phony Democrat excuse for losing the election, Russia, Russia, Russia.”