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U.S. Intelligence Findings On Russian Cyber Hacks Expose Political Rifts


The country's top intelligence official today doubled down on the assertion that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election by hacking into Democratic Party networks. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says he stands more resolutely today behind that finding in testimony before a Senate committee.

Republican Senator John McCain chaired the panel. He expressed support for the intelligence community and called Russia's meddling an unprecedented attack on our democracy.


JOHN MCCAIN: Every American should be alarmed by Russia's attacks on our nation. There is no national security interest more vital to the United States of America than the ability to hold free and fair elections without foreign interference.

CORNISH: One American who is not alarmed or at least not publicly is President-elect Donald Trump. He's openly dismissed the intelligence community's findings on Russia. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins me in studio to talk more. Hey there, Mara.


CORNISH: So we're seeing this extraordinary public back and forth - right? - between the incoming president and the intelligence community which in just two weeks he'll be in charge of. I mean how did that play out in today's hearing?

LIASSON: You heard today a full-throated and almost unanimous defense of the intelligence community's work and competence. The senators all agreed that Russia did hack. The DNI director, James Clapper, called it the most aggressive, direct campaign to interfere in U.S. elections ever.

And a lot of the senators implored Donald Trump respectfully and even in anguished voices to please not dismiss the work of the intelligence community. James Clapper said there's a difference between skepticism - which is healthy, and they welcome it - and disparagement.

CORNISH: And yet Donald Trump tweets out today, quote, "the media lies to make it look like I'm against intelligence when in fact I am a big fan." How do you read that?

LIASSON: Yes, that tweet could be seen as trying to walk back some of the criticisms. Of course he said the dishonest media, which is also his go-to boogie man, is making it look like I'm against intelligence. He also tweeted that the media is making it look like I agree with Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks. Trump tweeted, I just state what he states. There was a lot of pushback to that, too, in today's hearings.

Senators questioned why Donald Trump would believe anything that Assange says, someone who big majorities of Congress feel is not credible and has put lives at risk with his WikiLeaks dumps.

CORNISH: So why is Trump doing this?

LIASSON: That's a good question, and a lot of people are worried and puzzled about it. It could be that anything that undermines the legitimacy of his election is something he's very sensitive to. You've heard his spokesman say that the left is just trying to say he won because Russia intervened. I think the senators today went out of their way to say, no, that's not what they're saying.

But don't forget. All during the campaign, Trump used the WikiLeaks dump of the Democratic National Committee's emails and John Podesta's emails on the stump to attack Hillary Clinton, saying, I love WikiLeaks. And he asked the Russians to hack more and find the 30,000 emails Hillary Clinton supposedly deleted. So either his tweeting is just sensitivity to anyone questioning his win, or it's something more.

He has been saying nice things about Russia, and Vladimir Putin for many, many years - this is one of his few consistent, long-held positions. And either that's just sincere admiration for Putin as an authoritarian strongman, or there might be other ties between Trump and Russia that we don't know about.

CORNISH: So where does this leave the Republican Party, especially in Congress? Is there agreement on this stance on Russia, or are they at odds with Trump?

LIASSON: They're at odds with Trump. There's widespread distrust of Putin and Russia. They believe that Russia is undermining democracy, especially in Europe, through invasions, hacking, propaganda, bankrolling of far-right anti-immigrant parties.

And that's why today's briefing was so important and tomorrow's private briefing for Donald Trump is so important because the question is, after he hears privately and directly from the intelligence community, will he continue to disparage their work and deny that Russia hacked? That's a pretty important moment I think for Congress and for the president-elect.

CORNISH: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.