President-elect Donald Trump is doubling down on his repudiation of the intelligence agencies he will soon lead, telling Time magazine he still believes the unified U.S. government assessment that Russia sought to interfere in the presidential election was not only wrong, but politicized.
"I don’t believe it. I don’t believe they interfered," Trump told Time in an interview for the current issue, which names him "person of the year." Asked if he thought the conclusion of America’s spies was politically driven, Trump said, "I think so." He did not elaborate.
Intelligence officials told NBC News they were stunned by that pronouncement, noting that the assessment about Russia’s involvement in hacking the Democratic National Committee and in other political interference resulted in an extraordinary joint statement in October released by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security. Both were appointed by President Obama, but Clapper’s career as a non-partisan spy spans five decades.
"The U.S. Intelligence Community is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations," the statement said. "We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities."
As NBC News previously reported, a senior U.S. intelligence official said that details about the Russian government's attempts to interfere in the 2016 election were briefed to, and discussed extensively with, both Trump and Clinton, as well as their surrogates and party leadership, since mid-August.
Intelligence officials say they aren’t able to disclose details about the evidence, because it involves sensitive sources and methods that would give future attackers a road map for how to evade detection. They tell NBC News the intelligence they have gathered includes tips from human sources, intercepted communications, and a slew of computer forensics that links the hacks back to Russia.
Seven Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee sent a classified letter last week urging the Obama administration to declassify more information about the Russian connection to the hacks.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who signed the letter and has been briefed on the intelligence, told NBC News on Wednesday, "I just think it is bizarre for the president elect to refuse to acknowledge what the direct of national intelligence and the head of the department of homeland security have agreed on… It is one thing to doubt intelligence assessments for a good reason; it’s another to just dismiss them out of hand."
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat in the House Intelligence Committee, called Trump’s remarks "enormously damaging to the country." Schiff told NBC News: "President-elect Trump's comments this morning continue to contradict our intelligence professionals and carry water for the Kremlin."
Republican Rep. Pete King of New York told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC on Wednesday: "I think the evidence is strong that the Russians were involved" in the DNC hack.
During a debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump famously said that the hackers could have included "somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK? You don’t know who broke in to DNC." At that time, U.S. officials had already briefed Trump about the Russian connection.
Since his election victory, Trump has had several higher-level intelligence briefings, although it is not known to what extent he has been presented with the detailed evidence. He has declined to accept a daily intelligence briefing, U.S. officials tell NBC News.
"Any time I do something, they say ‘oh, Russia interfered,’" Trump told Time, according to a transcript the magazine released.
"Why not get along with Russia? And they can help us fight ISIS, which is both costly in lives and costly in money. And they’re effective and smart." Russia has directed the bulk of its efforts in Syria to defeating anti-Assad regime rebels, not ISIS.
He added, "It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey."
Current and former intelligence officials said Trump risked alienating the men and women who risk their lives to present him with secrets about American adversaries.
"It’s going to set a difficult tone for the incoming administration, when this is how things start out," said Steven Hall, a retired CIA operations officer who worked on Russia.
Hall and another former CIA official, John Sipher, wrote a piece this week for a web site, the Cipher Brief, calling on Trump to be firm with Russia.
"It seems that every new Presidential Administration has a tendency to place hope over experience in dealing with Russia," they wrote. "President George W. Bush tried to look into Putin’s soul, President Barack Obama tried a re-set, and it seems that President-elect Donald Trump believes that we can ally with the Russians to defeat ISIS."
But it won’t work, they say, because "experience has taught us that Russia does not share Western, internationalist values."