President-elect Donald Trump on Friday dismissed the firestorm surrounding allegations that Russia intervened in the presidential election as a “witch hunt” carried out by bitter political opponents.
“They got beaten very badly in the election,” Trump said in an interview with The New York Times.
“I won more counties in the election than Ronald Reagan,” he continued. “They are very embarrassed about it. To some extent, it’s a witch hunt. They just focus on this.”
Trump’s comments came just hours before he was scheduled to receive a classified briefing from top intelligence and national security officials on the extent of Russian hacking tied to U.S. elections.
His decision to double down on his skepticism toward the allegations is likely to inflame tensions with the intelligence community, which at the top level has expressed uniform confidence about Russia’s cyber hacking activities.
But Trump claimed the focus on Russia is political, pointing to what he said was a tamer response to China’s 2014 hack of the Office of Personnel Management.
“China, relatively recently, hacked 20 million government names,” he said. “How come nobody even talks about that? This is a political witch hunt.”
Trump’s reluctance to accept the charges against the Kremlin has irked the Obama administration and influential Republicans in Congress, who have taken a more hawkish approach toward Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Obama on Thursday expressed hope that “some of those current tensions will be reduced” after Trump receives his own briefing on the intelligence community’s findings.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Thursday indicated frustration with Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Moscow’s role in election-related hacking.
“I think there’s a difference between skepticism and disparagement,” Clapper said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Clapper is set to brief Trump on the intelligence community’s findings, alongside National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director James Comey.
Trump said he was looking forward to the briefing and praised Clapper, who he said “wrote me a beautiful letter a few weeks ago wishing me the best.”
But he also said “a lot of mistakes were made” by the intelligence community surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Iraq War.
“We have great people going into those slots,” Trump said of his incoming intelligence team. “I expect to have a very, very good relationship with them.”