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Obama and Trump allies trade blows over Russia hacking

Kellyanne Conway calls the White House’s comments ‘incredibly disappointing.’ Josh Earnest knocks Trump for joking about an ‘extraordinarily serious matter.’

Updated

So much for that peaceful transition. After weeks of magnanimity and biting tongues, the White House and Donald Trump’s transition team are saying a mouthful over allegations Russia helped Trump win the presidency. And it’s getting nasty.

The democratically mandated partners exchanged blows on Thursday, a day after the Obama administration’s top spokesman suggested the president-elect was fully aware that Russia was meddling in the U.S. presidential election in an effort that simultaneously helped his campaign while hurting the chances of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

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White House press secretary Josh Earnest ramped up his rhetoric on Thursday, vigorously defending his earlier comments as fact and more forcefully asserting that Trump, indeed, knew of Russia’s interference.

“Mr. Trump obviously knew that Russia was engaged in malicious cyber activity that was helping him and hurting Secretary Clinton’s campaign,” Earnest told reporters.

“First of all, it is just a fact — you have it all on tape — that the Republican nominee for president was encouraging Russia to hack his opponent because he believed that that would help his campaign,” he said. “That’s not a controversial statement. I’m not trying to be argumentative, but I am trying to acknowledge a basic fact. And all of you saw it. This is not in dispute.”

Senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway disagreed. She tore into Earnest on Thursday morning, surmising that the outgoing press secretary was “auditioning to be a political pundit after his job is over soon.”

“That is incredibly disappointing to hear from the podium of the White House press secretary,” she told Fox News, referring to Earnest’s prior comments from Wednesday. “Because he basically — he essentially stated that the president-elect had knowledge of this, maybe even fanned the flames. It’s incredibly irresponsible, and I wonder if his boss, President Obama, agrees.”

Asked to respond to Trump’s aide at the daily White House press briefing Thursday afternoon, Earnest was fully prepared to do so. His only concession was that it was “hard to know to where to start.”

For his part, Trump continued to cast doubt about the intelligence community’s consensus that Russia meddled in the election to erode confidence in American democracy.

“If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act? Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?” Trump tweeted on Thursday, continuing his run as the only major American political figure to deny Russia’s involvement.

In a joint response from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Oct. 7, the Obama administration officials formally identified Russia as the culprit behind the hack on Democratic institutions, including the Democratic National Committee.

“It was obvious to everyone who was paying attention, including the gentleman whose thumbs authored that tweet, that the impact of that malicious activity benefited the Trump campaign and hurt the Clinton campaign,” Earnest said. “That is, after all, why the president-elect called on Russia to hack Secretary Clinton’s email. That is presumably why the coverage of the hack-and-leak operation that Russia carried out was focused on emails from the Democratic Party and Clinton campaign staffers and not the Republican Party and Trump campaign staffers. It wasn’t a secret. It’s obvious what the impact was.”

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During their final presidential debate shortly after the government disclosure, Clinton challenged Trump to “admit and condemn” the Russian hacks “and make clear that he will not have the help of Putin in this election.” And the former secretary of state pressed him to admit that he “encouraged espionage” at his last news conference in July, when he invited Russia to find Clinton’s missing emails.

Trump has said his remark was sarcastic, but Earnest contended that no one else outside of Trump’s team found that so-called joke funny.

“There’s only been one person who’s tried to joke about this. Unfortunately, that person is the president-elect of the United States. This is an extraordinarily serious matter,” Earnest said Thursday.

“I don’t think anybody at the White House thinks it’s funny that an adversary of the United States engaged in malicious cyber activity to destabilize our democracy,” he added. “Nobody at the White House thought it was a joke. Nobody in the intelligence community thought it was a joke. I’m not aware that any members of Congress in either party that was briefed on this matter multiple times dating back to the summer thought it was a joke.”

At his massive campaign rallies, Trump would often read aloud stolen emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s personal account that were published by WikiLeaks, riling up a crowd that fiercely chanted “lock her up!”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who supported Trump for president and sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, had urged Republicans to stay silent on the WikiLeaks disclosures, warning that while Democrats were the current targets, “Tomorrow it could be us.”

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Earnest noted as much. But in her morning interview, Conway accused Earnest of “basically trying to re-litigate a political campaign” when both teams “are trying to work very closely to have a peaceful transition of power in a great democracy with just about a month-plus to go.”

Asked about Trump’s tweet on Thursday morning, transition communications director Jason Miller said he would “let the president-elect’s tweets speak for themselves.”

“But I’d say the continued efforts to try to delegitimize the election, at a certain point you’ve gotta realize that the election from last month is going to stand, whether it’s the recount or continued questions along this line,” he told reporters on the daily briefing call. “And we’re moving ahead and putting together a successful administration that’s ready to go to work serving the American people.”

Earnest pointed to President Barack Obama and his administration’s almost immediate efforts for a smooth, peaceful transition of power since Trump’s improbable victory to refute those charges.

“All of the available evidence about our actions since then indicates how seriously the Obama administration has fulfilled that responsibility that we have,” he said. “But there are others on the outside who are raising these questions, and apparently that is striking a nerve with the president-elect’s team.”

But if Trump’s team wants to deal with that, he advised, they should start answering questions. Trump had said previously that he would hold a news conference on Thursday to address his business conflicts and take questions. But he has since rescheduled that for sometime before his inauguration in January.

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“It might be time to not attack the intelligence community but actually be supportive of a thorough, transparent, rigorous, nonpolitical investigation into what exactly happened, and to cooperate with it and to support it. But they’re probably not that interested in advice from me,” Earnest said. “That is advice that I have to offer based on years of experience, and I think it would serve them well to follow it.”

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes expressed skepticism that something of this magnitude would happen without Russian President Vladimir Putin’s knowledge.

“Everything we know about how Russia operates and how Putin controls that government would suggest that, again, when you’re talking about a significant cyber intrusion like this, we’re talking about the highest levels of government,” he told MSNBC. “And ultimately, Vladimir Putin is the official responsible for the actions of the Russian government.”

Earnest refused to confirm reports that Putin personally had a hand in Russia’s involvement, only going so far as to note that in the Oct. 7 assessment, intelligence officials said “Russia’s senior-most officials” had authorized the cyber activity, noting that his interpretation is that the term “senior-most” wasn’t intended to be subtle.

“Pretty obvious that they were referring to the senior-most government official in Russia,” he said.

As he was taking questions, though, reports surfaced that the Kremlin was denying that Putin had personally directed how the hacks were used during the campaign. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the allegation “laughable nonsense.”

“I’m not surprised,” Earnest said.

Louis Nelson contributed to this report.

Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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