NEW YORK/WASHINGTON – Donald Trump and his aides are entering a crucial week in his presidential transition as he and his Cabinet nominees undergo public questioning about their approach to Russia and potential conflicts of interests.
Most pressing during the upcoming days of confirmation hearings and Trump’s first press conference in six months likely will be whether he accepts the conclusion of U.S. intelligence officials that Russia meddled in the U.S. election to help him win the White House.
Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said Sunday that Trump indeed has accepted that Russia was responsible for the hacking, which targeted the Democratic National Committee and a top aide to former rival Hillary Clinton.
“He’s not denying that entities in Russia were behind this particular campaign,” Priebus said in a Sunday television interview.
That’s more than Trump himself has said. As for potential retaliation, aides said those are decisions that Trump will make after he becomes president on Jan. 20.
Intelligence officials allege that Moscow directed a series of hacks in order to help Trump win the White House in the race against Clinton. Trump has expressed skepticism about Russia’s role and declined to say whether he agrees that the meddling was done on his behalf.
In an interview with The Associated Press after a briefing on the findings, Trump said he “learned a lot” from his discussions with intelligence officials, but he declined to say whether he accepted their assertion about Russia’s motives. Trump has said that improving relations with Russia would be a good thing and that only “stupid” people would disagree.
“My suspicion is these hopes will be dashed pretty quickly,” said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “The Russians are clearly a big adversary. And they demonstrated it by trying to mess around in our election.
An unclassified version of the report directly tied Russian President Vladimir Putin to election meddling and said that Moscow had a “clear preference” for Trump over Clinton. Trump and his allies have bristled at any implication that the meddling helped him win the election. He won the Electoral College vote with 306 votes, well over the 270 votes required to become president.
Accepting those findings would be a positive step, but not enough, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is calling for more penalties against Russia.
“He’s going to be the defender of the free world here pretty soon,” said Graham, a frequent Trump critic. “All I’m asking him is to acknowledge that Russia interfered, and push back. It could be Iran next time. It could be China.”
The developments come during a consequential week for Trump, who will become the nation’s 45th president on Jan. 20.
Beginning Tuesday, the Senate is to hold the first of at least nine hearings this week on Trump’s Cabinet picks. But Democrats have voiced objections to the pace set by the Republican majority. The government ethics office says it hasn’t received even draft financial disclosure reports for some of the nominees set to appear before Congress this week.
And on Wednesday, Trump is scheduled to hold a long-delayed news conference to describe his plans for his global business empire to avoid conflicts of interest while he’s president. While Trump has taken sporadic questions from reporters, it will be his first full-fledged news conference since July 27.
Trump’s transition team on Sunday meanwhile doubled down on its claim that Democrats allowed their email accounts to be hacked, dismissing an intelligence report on Russian meddling in the presidential election.
The comments come two days after the Republican president-elect met the country’s leading intelligence agency chiefs, who told him that Putin directed a vast cyberattack and leaking campaign aimed at helping install him in the White House.
Although Trump accepted the possibility that Moscow was involved in hacking U.S. targets, including the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the president-elect has held fast to his rejection of the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the election, and has called the accusations part of a “political witch-hunt” against him.
Trump’s senior aide, Kellyanne Conway, repeated that line on Sunday, telling CNN that “any attempt, any aspiration to influence our elections failed.”
“They were not successful in doing that, and it’s a very important point,” she said of the Russians, blaming Democrats instead for allowing their accounts to be hacked.
“We’re talking about this because we had embarrassing leaks from the DNC emails,” she said. “There were no fireworks in that report because there was no firewall at the DNC.”
Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, lost the election “all on her own,” Conway added.
“We didn’t need WikiLeaks to convince the American people they didn’t like her, didn’t trust her or find her to be honest,” she said of the website that posted the documents.
Conway also repeated Trump’s accusation that the White House leaked information about the intelligence before it was shared with Trump on Friday.
“You can’t have people in positions of keeping us all safe and knowing classified information or intelligence information, we can’t have them leaking to the media,” she said.
“That should really infuriate Americans today, that people who possess this information are sending it to the media ahead of the president-elect receiving the information.”
Trump has made repeated calls to improve relations with Moscow. “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing,” he tweeted on Saturday. “Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it is bad!”
Asked whether that meant Trump would not take action against Russia for hacking, White House chief of staff-designate Reince Priebus told Fox News on Sunday that the president-elect would order the intelligence community to make “recommendations.”
“The recommendations will be discussed and actions may be taken,” he said. “But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to have a good relationship with Russia and other countries around the world.”