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White House Suggests Putin Authorized Cyberattacks to Impact US Presidential Election

  • Ken Bredemeier

FILE - President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Wisconsin State Fair Exposition Center in West Allis, Wisconsin, Dec. 13, 2016.

The White House pointedly suggested Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally authorized cyberattacks to impact the U.S. presidential election even as President-elect Donald Trump complained about attempts to undermine his victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The Obama administration offered no direct proof of its public contention against Putin, however, and Moscow called the allegation "laughable nonsense."

Ben Rhodes, a top foreign affairs adviser to President Barack Obama, told MSNBC, "Everything we know about how Russia operates and how Putin controls that government would suggest that, again, when you're talking about a significant cyber intrusion like this, we're talking about the highest levels of government. And ultimately, Vladimir Putin is the official responsible for the actions of the Russian government."

FILE - White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Dec. 8, 2016.
FILE - White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Dec. 8, 2016.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest pointed to the U.S. intelligence community's October assessment that "only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities." He said the reference to "senior-most officials" wasn't supposed to be subtle. "It's pretty obvious," he told reporters.

Earnest on Thursday also doubled-down on his assertion that Trump not only knew about Russian interference during the campaign but encouraged it.

“It’s just a fact, you all have it on tape, that the Republican nominee for president was encouraging Russia to hack his opponent because he believed that that would help his campaign,” he told reporters at the White House briefing. “That’s not a controversial statement.”

Complaint via Twitter

Trump, however, asked in a Twitter comment, "If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act? Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?"

Earnest dismissed concerns about efforts to delegitimize Trump’s presidency, saying Obama has made clear that he is committed to a smooth and effective transition. But he also encouraged Trump to be supportive of a thorough, transparent and non-political investigation into the hack.

One of Trump's top aides, Kellyanne Conway, in a TV interview rebuked Earnest for suggesting Wednesday that Trump might have known during the campaign of the Russian interference in the U.S. presidential contest and that "their involvement was having a negative impact" on Clinton's campaign.

“That is just remarkable," Conway told Fox News. "That is breathtaking. I guess he's auditioning to be a political pundit after his job is over soon. That is incredibly disappointing to hear from the podium of the White House press secretary. Because he basically -- he essentially stated that the president-elect had knowledge of this, maybe even fanned the flames. It's incredibly irresponsible and I wonder if his boss, President Obama, agrees.”

FILE - Kellyanne Conway, campaign manager and senior advisor to the Trump Presidential Transition Team, speaks to the media at Trump Tower in New York, Nov. 16, 2016.
FILE - Kellyanne Conway, campaign manager and senior advisor to the Trump Presidential Transition Team, speaks to the media at Trump Tower in New York, Nov. 16, 2016.

At his last formal press conference in July, Trump invited Russian hackers to look for emails deleted from Clinton's private server, and then a day later said he meant it as a sarcastic joke.

But Earnest said Trump's suggestion to hack Clinton's computer “might be an indication that he was obviously aware and concluded, based on whatever facts or sources he had available to him, that Russia was involved."

Earnest on Thursday said no one at the White House, in Congress or in the U.S. intelligence community considered it "funny" that Russia was trying to "destabilize our democracy."

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter weighed in on the issue during a joint press conference with his British counterpart in London.

“President Obama has directed a review of this matter. I think that the integrity of an electoral system in a democracy should be of concern for all Americans. And since I am in Europe, here we call this kind of activity and this kind of threat in the NATO context, hybrid warfare,” Carter said Thursday.

WATCH: Carter on Russian hacking

The White House has not suggested Clinton would have won the election absent the Russian hacking. However, the vast array of U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Moscow hacked into computer accounts at the Democratic National Committee that helped oversee Clinton's unsuccessful campaign and the computer of Clinton's campaign chief, John Podesta, to help Trump win.

WikiLeaks, without citing its source, released thousands of Podesta's emails in the last month of the campaign, many of them revealing embarrassing in-fighting among Clinton aides, without any corresponding disclosures about the Trump campaign from accounts allegedly hacked at the Republican National Committee.

Trump has denounced the U.S. intelligence conclusion of Russian involvement, calling it "ridiculous." He has said that any hacking related to the election might have been carried out by China, Russia or anyone, including "someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds."

Interior post

In continuing to fill his Cabinet and top leadership posts, Trump officially nominated U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana as interior secretary on Thursday.

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, is a proponent of keeping public lands under federal ownership. That position would put him at odds with those in the Republican Party who favor privatization, or placing federal lands under the control of states, but on par with Trump, who also has said he does not think public land should be placed under state control.

Many environmental groups oppose Zinke, who has advocated for increased energy drilling and mining on public lands and has expressed skepticism about the urgency of climate change.

The Interior Department has more than 70,000 employees across the United States and oversees more than 20 percent of federal land, including national parks.

Also, Trump chose attorney David Friedman to serve as his U.S. ambassador to Israel, saying Friedman's "strong relationships in Israel will form the foundation of his diplomatic mission."

Business interests

In another Twitter comment Thursday, Trump assailed news media coverage of his efforts to separate himself from his vast global business empire to avoid conflicts of interest with decisions he and the U.S. government make when he assumes power January 20.

"The media tries so hard to make my move to the White House, as it pertains to my business, so complex -- when actually it isn't!" he said.

Trump has yet to spell out details of how he plans to remove himself from control of his commercial properties, golf courses, resorts and consumer product businesses. He says, though, his two eldest sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric, along with managers at the Trump Organization, will handle the operations.

FILE - Donald Trump, right, along with his children, from left, Eric, Ivanka and Donald Jr. attend a ceremony announcing a new hotel and condominium complex in Vancouver, British Columbia June 19, 2013.
FILE - Donald Trump, right, along with his children, from left, Eric, Ivanka and Donald Jr. attend a ceremony announcing a new hotel and condominium complex in Vancouver, British Columbia June 19, 2013.

Conway said it is possible that Trump's oldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner, might take White House jobs advising the new president.

But the president-elect apparently has ruled out the demand from ethics experts in past U.S. administrations that he divest his holdings and put the assets in a blind trust controlled by an independent manager making investment decisions without Trump's knowledge.

Earlier this week, Trump canceled a news conference that had been planned Thursday to disclose how he would handle his business affairs when he takes office, but now says he will talk about it next month.

Trump has regularly disparaged the U.S. news media during his lengthy campaign, and characterized reporters as dishonest low-lifes. He assailed another publication Thursday, Vanity Fair, and attacked the magazine's editor, Graydon Carter, for the mocking stories the magazine has published about Trump.

"Has anyone looked at the really poor numbers of @VanityFair Magazine. Way down, big trouble, dead! Graydon Carter, no talent, will be out!" Trump said.

Tech execs

Trump was conciliatory Wednesday, however, with another group that had been among his fiercest critics during the campaign: top executives from the biggest U.S. technology companies.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, right, and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, center, listen as President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with technology industry leaders at Trump Tower in New York, Dec. 14, 2016.
Apple CEO Tim Cook, right, and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, center, listen as President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with technology industry leaders at Trump Tower in New York, Dec. 14, 2016.

Trump's office said he wants to begin a "conversation and partnership" to spark innovation and create more jobs.

Trump struck a cordial tone at the start of the meeting.

"There's nobody like the people in this room. ... We want you to keep going with the incredible innovation," Trump said. "Anything we can do to help this go along, we're going to be there for you."

Trump invited the technology chief executives to call him directly if they want to talk, and suggested they meet again, as often as every three months.

The president-elect's office said Trump had an "open mind and willingness to listen" during the talks, and that his approach was "greatly received" by the tech leaders.

VOA's Aru Pande contributed to this report.

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