WASHINGTON (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a hidden campaign to influence America’s presidential election in favor of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, U.S. intelligence agencies declared Friday in the government’s first formal allegation in support of sensational claims that Trump and his supporters have staunchly resisted.
The intelligence report, an unclassified version of a more-detailed classified account given earlier to Trump, the White House and congressional leaders, withheld any evidence to back up its assertions. The president-elect said after his own meeting with the nation’s top intelligence officials that it was clear Russian email hacking did not deliver him the presidency.
The unclassified version was the most detailed public account to date of Russian efforts to interfere with the U.S. political process, with actions that included hacking into the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and individual Democrats like Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. Russia also used state-funded propaganda and paid “trolls” to make nasty comments on social media services, the report said.
There was no suggestion that Russia affected actual vote counting or tampered with ballot machines.
Since Election Day, the intelligence agencies said, Russia has launched a spear-phishing campaign, targeting U.S. government employees and think tanks that specialize in national security, defense and foreign policy.
The report lacked details about how the U.S. learned what it said it knows, such as any intercepted conversations or electronic messages among Russian leaders, including Putin, or about specific hacker techniques or digital tools the U.S. may have traced back to Russia in its investigations.
Exactly how the U.S. monitors its adversaries in cyberspace is a closely guarded secret, since revealing such details could help foreign governments further obscure their activities.
The unclassified version included footnotes acknowledging that it “does not include the full supporting information on key elements of the influence campaign.” It said its conclusions were identical to the classified version, which was more detailed.
The unclassified report said the Russian effort was both political and personal.
“Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency,” it said. “We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
Putin most likely wanted to discredit Clinton because he blames her for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012, and because he resents her for disparaging comments she has made about him, the report said. It said the Russian effort was the “boldest yet” intended to affect a U.S. election.
The report was released shortly after intelligence officials finished briefing Trump — a move probably intended to bolster the intelligence findings against pushback from the president-elect.
Trump could use the lack of supporting details in the public version to fuel his dismissiveness of the findings, even though he has now been briefed on the classified portion.
Trump has been dismissive of the intelligence agencies’ claims of Russia’s involvement for months, long before he saw the classified information Friday.
Just hours before he was briefed, Trump dismissed the assessment and told The New York Times the focus on Russia’s involvement is a “political witch hunt” by adversaries who are embarrassed they lost the election. “They got beaten very badly in the election,” Trump said. “They are very embarrassed about it. To some extent, it’s a witch hunt. They just focus on this.”
After finally seeing the intelligence behind the claims of the outgoing Obama administration, Trump released a one-page statement that did not address whether Russia sought to meddle. Instead, he said, “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.”
Clapper told Congress on Thursday that intelligence agencies had no way of gauging what influence this meddling had in the outcome of the election. It was unclear Friday what evidence Trump had to support his claims.
As Trump met in New York with intelligence officials for his briefing about Russia’s campaign, Congress tallied the Electoral College votes, officially confirming Trump’s November victory.
Trump acknowledged in his statement that “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people” are consistently trying to hack U.S. networks, including the Democratic National Committee’s.
He said, as did the intelligence report, that “there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.”
Trump said that as president he would appoint a team to develop a plan to “aggressively combat and stop cyberattacks.”
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Chad Day and Jack Gillum contributed to this report.