As Russian diplomats expelled by Barack Obama left the US on Sunday, Donald Trump’s incoming White House spokesman attempted to cast as a diplomatic triumph the president-elect’s controversial response to intelligence community reports that Moscow sought to influence the presidential election.

“That’s actually good for our country,” Sean Spicer told ABC’s This Week, referring to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision not to pursue immediate retaliation.

“So everyone wants to talk about the tweets that he sends, but I want to focus on the action that he’s getting. Donald Trump’s not president yet and he’s getting action, successes and wins both abroad and here at home.”

Trump’s decision to praise Putin, question intelligence findings and repeatedly say the US should “move on” places the president-elect at odds not just with the current White House, but with his own party in Congress.

On Thursday, Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomatic personnel and the closure of estates in Maryland and New York used by embassy staff. The expelled personnel left Washington on Sunday, Reuters reported, citing a Russian news agency report.

“The plane took off, everyone has left,” Reuters quoted the embassy’s press service as saying, from a report in RIA.

On Friday, contrary to the view of his foreign ministry, Putin declined to respond to Obama’s move, signalling that he would rather wait to gauge relations with the Trump administration. As is his wont, and to familiar uproar, Trump expressed his approval on Twitter.

“Great move on delay (by V. Putin),” he wrote. “I always knew he was very smart!”

On Sunday, Spicer, formerly chief strategist and communications director of the Republican National Committee, said Obama’s measures were unlike any “in modern history for any action” and could prove too far-reaching.

“I think one of the questions that we have is, why the magnitude of this?” he said. “I mean you look at 35 people being expelled, two sites being closed down, the question is, is that response in proportion to the actions taken?”

Spicer and Trump’s comments stand in sharp contrast to views held by Republicans in Congress.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said the White House had “not yet dissuaded [Russia] from attempting to breach our cybersecurity systems, or harass our diplomats in Moscow”.

House speaker Paul Ryan called the sanctions “overdue” and “an appropriate way to end eight years of failed policy with Russia”.

Leading Republicans have joined calls for a bipartisan congressional investigation. Arizona senator John McCain scheduled a hearing on foreign cyber threats for 5 January, and called senior intelligence officials to testify.

On Sunday, speaking in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, McCain said: “We will strongly urge our colleagues toward more meaningful and stronger sanctions against Russia because of their attack on the United States of America.”

Spicer also expressed concern that Obama had acted to Trump’s political disadvantage and pointed to what he said was a lack of public response to China’s hacking of the federal government’s network in 2015, breaches that exposed sensitive information belonging to more than 22m federal employees and contractors.

“A White House statement wasn’t even issued,” Spicer said. “No action publicly was taken. Nothing, nothing was taken.”

He added: “So there is a question about whether there’s a political retribution here versus a diplomatic response.”

In his own remarks to reporters at his Mar-a-Lago estate on Saturday night, Trump again expressed doubt over the US intelligence consensus regarding Russian breaches of Democratic party infrastructure.

“I just want them to be sure, because it’s a pretty serious charge,” he said. “If you look at the weapons of mass destruction” – a reference to justification for the invasion of Iraq under George W Bush in 2003 – “that was a disaster, and they were wrong.”

Trump, who has long advocated for warmer relations with Russia, pressed his view that the US does not know for sure who was behind the cyber-attacks, which he has suggested could have been carried out by China, another state or “someone sitting on their bed weighing 400lbs”.

Asked on Saturday about the reported discovery that Moscow could be behind malware found on a laptop owned by a Vermont electricity utility, Trump questioned the premise.

“It could be somebody else. And I also know things that other people don’t know so we cannot be sure,” Trump said, adding that more would be revealed on “on Tuesday or Wednesday”.

The president-elect is set to meet intelligence officials this week, a meeting to which he agreed after the announcement of the Obama sanctions, despite repeating his wish for the American people to “move on” from the issue.

Echoing his vague and much-discussed remarks earlier this week about security in the “age of computer”, he said his 10-year-old could “do anything with a computer”, advocated the use of couriers to transfer information, and said: “I know a lot about hacking. And hacking is a very hard thing to prove.”

Responding to Trump’s comments, Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives’ intelligence committee, told ABC the president-elect stood alone in questioning the conclusions of US intelligence agencies.

“This is the overwhelming judgment of the intelligence community and, frankly, all of the members of the intelligence committees in Congress, Democrats and Republicans,” Schiff said.

“None of us have any question about this. The only one who does, apparently, is Donald Trump.”

Schiff warned that Trump would face bipartisan resistance if he tried to lift the Obama sanctions.

“The reaction is going to be even more vigorous, I’m convinced, in favor of stronger sanctions against Russia,” Schiff said.

“You’re going to see Democrats and Republicans, like McCain and [South Carolina senator Lindsey] Graham and others, come together with a strong [congressional] sanctions package because frankly even though what the administration did was more than symbolic – it was very meaningful – it is not enough to deter Russia.”


Lauren Gambino in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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