Trump's Reversal on Russia

After insisting for weeks that Russian intelligence operatives – under direct orders from President Vladimir Putin – were not responsible for the cyber attacks against the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and other organizations for the purpose of influencing the election, President-elect Trump altered his message.

In his first post-election news conference, he stated “I think it was Russia” and that Putin “shouldn’t have done it” and “won’t be doing it” in the future.

Trump’s change of tune came on the heels of a security briefing in which top U.S. intelligence officials informed him of allegations that the Kremlin had indeed engaged in an extensive conspiracy with members of his team and employees of his company in order to help get him elected.

Though Mr. Trump animatedly denies any such connection with Russia, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other intelligence agencies have been trying for months to substantiate these incendiary claims.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, claims that Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russian intelligence emanated from a dossier that British intelligence agent Christopher Steele compiled for Mr. Trump’s political opponents – both Republican and Democratic – last year.

Senior intelligence officials deemed the allegations contained in Steele’s dossier significant enough to summarize in an addendum to the classified briefing that the president-elect received on January 6. Their decision to share this unverified information stemmed from an abundance of caution, by which the incoming president should be made aware of accusations against him that could become public.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated: “The IC [intelligence community] has not made any judgment that the information in the Steele 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.” President Obama received the same information.

In addition to claiming that the Kremlin colluded with Trump’s presidential campaign, Steele’s dossier also alleges that Russian officials have evidence of Mr. Trump’s behavior that could be used to blackmail him, including sex tapes and bribes taken during business deals.

Since becoming president-elect, Trump appears to have skipped several intelligence briefings and national security meetings. Is it possible that he has only recently taken an interest in security briefings because his personal reputation is at risk? Could Trump’s reversal on Russia be an attempt to sweep evidence of his poor behavior and collusion under the Oval Office rug? What could the Russians possibly have on Trump that would make him change his tune and ultimately leave room for speculation that the Russians influenced the election – leading many Americans to question the legitimacy of his victory?

On the same day as his first post-election news conference, Russian officials denied that they had compromising material on Mr. Trump, calling the claim an “absolute fabrication” and an attempt to damage U.S.-Russian relations. Moscow also denied that it used cyber attacks to try to influence the election.

Recent intelligence reports suggest that Trump’s multiple GOP primary opponents, not the Russians, were the ones responsible for collecting dirt on him. But these rivals have denied they commissioned the Steele dossier. Tim Miller, a spokesman for Jeb Bush’s campaign who later worked for an anti-Trump group, is among those who denied any involvement. “It defies logic,” he said. “If we had it, why didn’t we use it?”

Though Trump switched his position on Russia’s involvement in the DNC leaks, he remains skeptical that Russia has been the only instigator of cyber attacks against the U.S. “I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people,” he noted. “And … everything else that was hacked recently… that was something that was extraordinary. That was probably China.”

Trump makes a good point here. The United States has many adversaries abroad who have both the motive and capability to initiate cyber attacks. I would certainly hope that the president-elect’s change of tune on Russia reflects his commitment to double-down on efforts to secure American documents from foreign threats.