White House says Vladimir Putin had direct role in hacking US election

Press secretary Josh Earnest argued Donald Trump knew Russia was engaged in cyber-attacks, and Trump went on the attack at a Pennsylvania rally to label him ‘foolish’

The White House on Thursday went its furthest yet in joining the dots between Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Press secretary Josh Earnest indicated that he shared the view of US intelligence officials, reported by NBC News, that Putin had a direct role in hacking during the presidential election.

He also argued that Trump knew Russia was engaged in malicious cyber-attacks that boosted him and damaged his rival, Hillary Clinton.

But asked directly if the White House believes that Russia successfully rigged the US presidential election, Earnest told reporters “there are a variety of potential explanations” for Trump’s surprise win. It was a question for political analysts, he said, not intelligence analysts.

Although there is no evidence that Russians hacked voting machines on election day, intelligence officials have claimed Russians were behind the raid on Clinton campaign chairperson John Podesta’s emails, which were published by WikiLeaks and featured regularly in media coverage of the race.

Earnest pointed White House reporters to a unanimous statement from all 17 intelligence agencies, issued in October, that found “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities”.

The press secretary said that in his personal view, that sentence was “not intended to be subtle”, adding that it was “pretty obvious that they were referring to the senior-most government official in Russia”.

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, agreed in an interview on MSNBC.

“I don’t think things happen in the Russian government of this consequence without Vladimir Putin knowing about it,” he said.

The Kremlin rejected the claim of Putin’s involvement, spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissing it as “amusing rubbish that has no basis in fact”, in a conference call with reporters.

Despite outward cordiality between Obama and Trump, the issue is straining relations between their teams. Trump himself weighed in on Thursday, using Twitter to ask: “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, who normally swerves past Trump’s tweets, noted that the intelligence community had in fact issued its statement on 7 October, a month before polling day.

“It was obvious to everyone who was paying attention,” he said, “including the gentleman whose thumbs authored that tweet, that the impact of that malicious activity benefited the Trump campaign and hurt the Clinton campaign.

“That is, after all, why the president-elect called on Russia to hack Secretary Clinton’s email.

“That is presumably why the coverage of the hack-and-leak operation that Russia carried out was focused on emails from the Democratic party and Clinton campaign staffers and not the Republican party and Trump campaign staffers.”

He added: “That is why, in the day leading up to election day, the Republican nominee himself was encouraging people to check out WikiLeaks. He thought it would help his campaign.

“And he knew that when people went to WikiLeaks, they weren’t going to find damaging information about [his allies] Steve Bannon or Reince Priebus or the RNC [Republican National Committee].”

At his last press conference, in July, Trump effectively asked a foreign power to carry out cyber-espionage, entreating Russia to find Clinton’s 30,000 “missing” emails, from the private server she used while secretary of state.

His aides have since claimed he was joking, but Earnest said pointedly on Thursday: “I don’t think anybody at the White House thinks it’s funny that an adversary of the United States engaged in malicious cyber activity to destabilise our democracy.

“That’s not a joke.”

Later on Thursday, Trump launched a brazen attack on Earnest at a post-election rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania, branding him “foolish” and speculating, without evidence, that he might be “taking orders from someone else”.

At the rally, Trump moved to stop the boisterous crowd booing when he mentioned Obama’s name, waving his hand and saying, “No, no, no!”

But then, seemingly as a fresh thought occurred to him, he digressed: “Although this foolish guy, Josh Earnest, I don’t know if he’s talking to President Obama. You know, having the right press secretary’s so important because he is so bad, the way he delivers a message.

“He can deliver a positive message and it sounds bad. He could say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, today we have totally defeated Isis,’ and it wouldn’t sound good, OK, all right? I have a feeling they won’t be saying it but we will be saying it.”

The crowd cheered. The Republican nominee added: “The president’s very positive but he’s not positive and I mean, maybe he’s getting his orders from somebody else. Does that make sense? Could that be possible?”

Although Obama and Trump have been studiously polite about each other, their lieutenants seem to be taking the gloves off. Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, who is said to have turned down the job of press secretary, described Earnest’s criticism as “breathtaking”. She told Fox News: “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.”

But David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Obama, said it was “highly unlikely” Earnest was acting without the president’s approval. “A press secretary doesn’t go out and make statements like that on an unauthorised basis,” he told CNN.


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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