— -- A simmering dispute between President-elect Donald Trump and the U.S. intelligence community erupted into an ugly, public spat over the weekend following reports in the Washington Post and the New York Times that the CIA believes Russian-directed cyber-intrusions into Democratic organizations were conducted with the intent to help Trump get elected.
Trump swiftly rejected that analysis as politically motivated and condemned the agency itself as "the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
So how did it get to this point and what is the fight really about?
The spat began in June when it was first reported by The Washington Post that hackers had accessed the Democratic National Committee's computer network and breached a database of opposition research. A month later, WikiLeaks began publishing emails belonging to Democratic officials, which exposed an effort in the party to sabotage the candidacy of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, leading the resignation of Chair Debbie Wasserman Schulz. More emails were released (including by a similar organization named DC Leaks) and more damage to the Democrats ensued. Some 50,000 emails belonging to Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta were exposed and provided a steady stream of embarrassing stories for the campaign to confront in the last weeks before election day. No emails from Republican officials were ever released.
Just days after news of the hacking broke in June, intelligence analysts started blaming Russian actors for the intrusion. A respected American cyber-technology firm called Crowdstrike released detailed statement on June 15 "identifying two separate Russian intelligence-affiliated adversaries present in the DNC network." Then on Oct. 7, the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence released an unusually candid of its own, saying "the U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations." The statement made clear "these thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process," but it did not mention any intent on Russia's part to get Trump elected.
RUSSIANS REPORTEDLY HELPING TRUMP
Last Friday, The Washington Post reported that, according to officials, the CIA concluded Russia intervened in the election to help Trump win. The story said members of Congress had been briefed on the new CIA findings. The New York Times came out with a similar report that same day, saying that the Russians got into RNC computer systems but never released any information about the GOP.
The CIA would not comment to ABC News on any of its own new assessments nor would it confirm the Washington Post report. Regarding the report that the RNC was also compromised, U.S. officials did confirm to ABC that elements of the GOP were hacked, but said that the attackers never gained entry into the main systems of the RNC. The also said that their overall effort to compromise the Republican data was not nearly as successful as it was with the Democrats.
Two days after the initial reports, both the Washington Post and New York Times published reports saying there are conflicting points of view within the intelligence community on what Russia's intentions may have been and whether or not Russia sought simply to undermine the election process, or more narrowly to get Trump elected.
Trump, who campaigned on creating better relations with Russia, was clearly bothered by reports that Russia sought to get him elected and his transition team reacted by releasing a one-line statement slamming the intelligence community: "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," the statement read. "The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and “Make America Great Again.”
Two days later both Trump and his incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, appeared on the Sunday morning news broadcasts and denied any Russian connection whatsoever. Beyond simply disputing Russia's political motivations, which, despite the reporting, the intelligence community is not settled on, Trump and his team questioned the validity of that Oct. 7 statement from the DHS and the DNI which said it was confident Russia was responsible for the hacks.
"They didn’t conclude it was Russia," Priebus erroneously claimed to George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week." On Fox News Sunday Trump said “they have no idea if it's Russia or China or somebody. It could be somebody sitting in a bed some place.”
This next morning Trump fired off more tweets, questioning the methods used by U.S. intelligence agencies to determine cyber breaches.
WASHINGTON AND THE WHITE HOUSE
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has called for a select committee to investigate the hacks and Democratic Senators, led by Oregon's Ron Wyden, are calling on the White House to publicly release any findings about Russia's intrusion into the U.S. elections. White House counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco said Friday that the intelligence community’s review of the Russian hacking incident will be completed before the inauguration and presented to Congress.
And today White House spokesman Josh Earnest waded deep into the controversy, suggesting the hacks only bolster Trump. "You didn't need a security clearance to figure out who benefited from malicious Russian cyberactivity," Earnest said during a briefing with reporters. "The President-elect didn't call it into question, he called on Russia to hack his opponent. He called on Russia to hack Secretary Clinton, Earnest said," referencing Trump's controversial campaign comments.
Others have hit Trump and his team even harder. Democratic congressman from California and the ranking member on the House intelligence committee, Adam Schiff, said Trump's attacks on the intelligence community will undermine the success of his own presidency.
"The most recent and breathtakingly irresponsible statements have come from John Bolton, the President-elect's likely candidate for Deputy Secretary of State, who suggested this week that the Obama Administration hacked the Democratic Party and Secretary Clinton in a ‘false flag’ operation designed to blame the Russians," Schiff's statement read.
"This preposterous conspiracy theory puts Bolton in the same league with other Trump allies who suggested a Clinton child sex ring was operating under a Washington pizza parlor. That Bolton would engage in the propagation of such a bizarre theory should disqualify him from consideration – if his continued advocacy of the invasion of Iraq wasn't already enough cause for alarm."