President-elect Donald Trump dismissed a controversy over Russian hacking during the 2016 U.S. election campaign as a “political witch hunt,” the New York Times reported on Friday before U.S. intelligence agencies were to brief him on the matter.
The 12:30 p.m. (1730) briefing coincides with deep tension between U.S. intelligence agencies and Republican Trump, who has disparaged their conclusions that Russia staged cyber attacks to interfere in the election by hacking Democratic Party institutions and campaign staff of his opponent Hillary Clinton.
“China, relatively recently, hacked 20 million government names,” Trump said in a telephone interview with the New York Times, referring to the Office of Personnel Management breach in 2014 and 2015. “How come nobody even talks about that? This is a political witch hunt.”
“With all that being said, I don’t want countries to be hacking our country,” the newspaper quoted Trump as saying. “They’ve hacked the White House. They’ve hacked Congress. We’re like the hacking capital of the world.”
Russia denies the U.S. government’s allegations of hacking during the election campaign.
Trump’s comments appeared to contradict the views expressed by two of his senior aides on Friday morning that he would have an open mind about the issue when he meets top U.S. intelligence officials in Trump Tower in New York.
Trump would question the heads of the top U.S. intelligence agencies about their methods and conclusions, said spokesman Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway, who will be a counselor to Trump when he is sworn in on Jan. 20.
“He’s prepared to listen and understand how they got to the conclusions they did,” Spicer told ABC on Friday, saying Trump has “a healthy skepticism of everything.”
Conway said it was too soon for Trump make a judgment even as he has repeatedly tweeted this week about the hacking issue.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and the heads of the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation are expected to attend Trump’s briefing on the hacking issue. An unclassified version of their report is expected to be released as early as later on Friday.
Clapper, the top U.S. intelligence official, told lawmakers on Thursday he was resolute in his conviction that Russia was responsible for the hacking and pushed back against Trump’s criticism.
“There’s a difference between healthy skepticism … and disparagement,” Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The U.S. agencies, which concluded months ago that Russian intelligence agencies had directed the hacking of the Democrats, said in their final intelligence report that they had identified the Russian officials who fed the hacked material to WikiLeaks through a third party, according to senior U.S. officials.
Democratic President Barack Obama received his briefing on the final report on Thursday, after last week moving to punish Moscow by expelling suspected Russian spies and imposing sanctions.
The Senate Intelligence Committee said it would hold a hearing on Tuesday with the intelligence chiefs.
Trump on Twitter has called himself a “big fan” of intelligence agencies while also casting doubts that Russia targeted former secretary of state Clinton, in order to sway the Nov. 8 election in his favor.
His comments have not just drawn the ire of Democrats but also fellow Republicans such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who are wary of Moscow and Trump’s praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Leon Panetta, former CIA director and defense secretary under Obama, said on NBC’s “Today” program on Friday that Trump’s criticisms should be done privately and that his tweeting on the issue was “unheard of and unprecedented.”
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York, Patricia Zengerle, Dustin Volz, David Alexander, Susan Heavey and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Bill Trott and Grant McCool)