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Priebus: 'I Don't Know Whether It's True' Russia Is Responsible for Election Hacks

Priebus vehemently disputed a report in the New York Times that the Republican National Committee was hacked alongside the DNC.
Image: Reince Priebus
Reince Priebus appears on "Meet the Press" in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 2016.NBC NewsWire / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Reince Priebus vehemently denied that the Republican National Committee had been hacked alongside its Democratic counterpart as part of what the CIA concluded was a Russian attempt to influence the outcome of the United States election in Donald Trump's favor.

"Number one, the RNC was not hacked. I don't know of any employees, on any of their own Gmail accounts, that was hacked. So what I'm trying to tell you is the RNC was not hacked, number one," Priebus, who is the outgoing RNC chair, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" in response to a question about whether he and President-elect Donald Trump have confidence in U.S. intelligence officials.

NBC News confirmed the intelligence community's "consensus," first reported by the Washington Post on Friday, that Russia mounted a covert intelligence operation to help Trump win the presidency — not just try to sow chaos and undermine the election. The New York Times also reported Friday that American intelligence officials had determined with "high confidence" that the RNC had been hacked and that the information had not been released — unlike the Democrats' stolen documents, which were released in the months preceding the election.

Related: CIA Concludes Russia Mounted Operation to Help Trump Win: Source

The president-elect's transition team responded to those reports by attacking the CIA as "the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction." Priebus on Sunday repeatedly refused to say whether he and Trump believed the CIA's conclusion, continuing to stress that the RNC wasn't hacked.

"The CIA has made this assessment, Donald Trump has so ignored the assessment. Do you not believe Russia was involved? Do you not believe anything that Russia was attempting to infiltrate the U.S. election system in any way, shape or form?" NBC's Chuck Todd asked.

"Here is what I'm saying. Number one, you don't have a single source — I've given you a source specifically, me, who runs the RNC, to say that the RNC was not hacked. You tell me who the specific source on the other side of this that says the R.N.C. was hacked," Priebus said.

"But my question's not about the RNC," Todd said.

Later, Todd asked: "Let's just clear this up, do you believe that the president-elect believed that Russia was trying to muddy up and get involved in the election in 2016?"

"Number one, you don't know it, I don't know it, and there's been no conclusive or specific report that say otherwise. So that's the first thing. The second thing I would tell you is that you don't have any proof that the outcome of the election was changed. Forget about who did the hacking," Priebus said.

He then went on to say that, despite the conclusion of intelligence officials, he still doesn't know who did the hacking.

"Look, someone hacked. We don't like that. I don't like it. No one wants it. We want to protect American interests. It's America first. I don't want the DNC hacked. I don't want anybody hacked. But I don't know who did the hacking. That's my point."

Whether or not Trump would investigate the hacks as president, Priebus said he didn't know that, either.

U.S. intelligence agencies previously concluded that Russia was behind the hacks of Democrats' email accounts, including the account of Hillary Clinton's campaign chair, John Podesta. The U.S. publicly blamed Russia for the hacks in October, citing the agreement of all 17 intelligence agencies. The goal, they said then, was "to interfere with the U.S. election process."

However, a Congressional official with knowledge of the CIA's assessment told NBC News, new intelligence suggests that Russia intervened in order to help Trump get elected.

"What is really striking about the last 48 hours .. is that now the intelligence community is starting to directly give us news about the way these dots are connected," Mike McFaul, former ambassador to Russia under President Obama, told Todd. "We knew some things, like, we were pretty certain about the DNC hacking by the Russians. What we didn't have reported before was evidence that they gave that data to WikiLeaks. And we also didn't have the data ... that they have hacked the RNC, the Republicans. Those are pretty big new facts, and I think they demand real attention in terms of some kind of investigation."

Trump has frequently dismissed the conclusions of the intelligence agencies he will soon lead, especially regarding reports about Russia's attempts to undermine the electoral process. He repeatedly praised Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, and implored Russia to hack Clinton during his last press conference in July — a comment he later said was sarcastic.

Related: Rex Tillerson of ExxonMobil Expected to Be Named Trump's Secretary of State: Sources

Trump's choice for secretary of state could signal the direction Trump intends take U.S. relations with Russia. Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil CEO who emerged over the weekend as the leading candidate for the chief diplomatic position, has close ties to Putin.

Trump, in a pre-taped interview with Fox News Sunday, praised Tillerson for his business relationship with Russia.

"To me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players, and he knows them well," Trump said. "He does massive deals in Russia. He does massive deals for the company — not for himself, for the company."

But both Republicans and Democrats have expressed alarm. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, called the idea "absurd," while Sen. John McCain called Tillerson's close relationship with Putin "a matter of concern."

Priebus on Sunday called the criticism of Tillerson, who has no government or diplomatic experience, premature and "not helpful."

"He's one of the most preeminent business people ... in the entire world," Priebus said, noting that Trump would make an official announcement next week regarding his pick.

Priebus defended Tillerson's decision to attend an event Putin hosted earlier this year over the objection of the U.S. government.

"We just don't believe that talking to people, having relationships, is a bad thing," Priebus said.

"So should we expect that, regardless of who's secretary of state, that one of the first orders President Trump will do will be to lift the sanctions against Putin and many of his cronies?" Todd asked.

"I wouldn't go to any conclusion," Priebus said. "I think the only conclusion you should have is that talking to people is something that President-elect Trump is going to do."