President-elect Donald Trump amplified his already heated war with the intelligence community Wednesday, accusing agents of disseminating an ugly and unsubstantiated report about him, and comparing the leak to Nazi tactics.
The showdown threatens to further undermine trust between the next commander in chief and America’s spies amid heightened threats to national security from terrorist groups and adversaries around the world with powerful new cyberweapons.
Trump, for the first time, acknowledged intelligence findings that Russia hacked Democratic files in an effort to interfere with the election, but he denied that Moscow tried to help him win, and he praised President Vladimir Putin, even suggesting that the hack ultimately helped American voters.
“Hacking's bad and it shouldn't be done,” he told reporters. “But look at the things that were hacked, look at what was learned from that hacking.”
The claim was one of several bizarre moments at a wide-ranging news conference, Trump’s first since July, that also touched on his business conflicts, his biggest campaign promises and another of his main foils, the media.
The event went off with a typical level of theatrics: Trump stood in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York next to stacks of file folders, ostensibly containing documents detailing the handover of his businesses to his older sons, though they were acknowledged only as an afterthought. Several other speakers took turns at the lectern, including a tax lawyer, a spokesman and Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Trump briefly argued with a CNN correspondent, refusing to take his question.
Trump was asked to rule out the possibility of contacts between his associates and Russian intelligence agents during the campaign and would not do so. But he lashed out against media organizations that published unverified allegations Tuesday from a report that claimed that Russians had gathered blackmail material against him and that people in his orbit had met with Russian agents during the campaign. [...]
“It was disgraceful — disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out,” Trump said. “That's something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do.”
Intelligence officials and their allies have stewed over Trump’s broadsides and were angered by his latest declarations of distrust.
“Kill the messenger and divert attention: That is the only trick Donald Trump has, and he does it viciously,” said Glenn Carle, a former senior CIA officer who spent more than two decades as a spy. “… The relationship is essentially damaged beyond the possibility of repair before it has even begun.”
Trump continued to dismiss criticism of Russia, much of it waged by members of his own party, over the hacking of Democrats. He noted that China also has breached U.S. government systems and insisted it is not getting the attention it deserves, one of several instances when he was asked about Russia and invoked China instead in his answer.[...]
“If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That's called an asset, not a liability,” Trump said.[...]
Trump spoke positively of improving relations with Russia during his presidency, praising Putin and saying Moscow “can help us fight [Islamic State], which, by the way, is, No. 1, tricky.”
Some of those views not only put him at odds with some U.S. intelligence officials but also many Republican members of Congress who call Putin an autocrat who violates human rights and unlawfully invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. That tension played out Wednesday on Capitol Hill, where Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for secretary of State, faced sharp questions during his initial Senate hearing from members of both parties. The former Exxon Mobil chief has had deep business ties in the country.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican who ran against Trump for president, showed particular frustration that Tillerson would not use the term "war criminal" to describe Putin, in light of atrocities reported in Syria, where Russian troops are aiding government forces.
And although Tillerson criticized Russia's invasion of Ukraine and said policy toward Russia had to be “clear-eyed,” he stuck with his skepticism toward economic sanctions, which he said too often end up hurting U.S. businesses. They have been a key tool for the Obama administration to punish Russia for its incursions into Ukraine.[...]
Democrats warned that Trump was being shortsighted.
“Trump may think that denigrating the intelligence community is good politics, or a useful way to deflect attention from the gravity of Russia's intervention on his behalf during the election,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
At some point, Trump may need to rely on intelligence reports to justify military action overseas, he said.
“By casting doubt on their integrity, by mentioning the intelligence community in the same sentence as Nazi Germany, President-elect Trump is undermining the authority and credibility that he will need as president,” Schiff said.