WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin supervised his intelligence agencies’ hacking of the U.S. presidential election and turned it from a general effort to discredit the process to a specific attempt to support Donald Trump, three U.S. officials said on Thursday.
Accusations that Russia tried to influence the election by hacking people and institutions, including Democratic Party bodies, has angered President-elect Trump who says he won the Nov. 8 vote fairly. Russian officials have denied all accusations of interference in the U.S. election.
But the U.S. officials said on the condition of anonymity that the U.S. intelligence community is confident its assessment of Russian cyber attacks on the election is accurate.
“This began merely as an effort to show that American democracy is no more credible than Putin’s version is,” one of the officials said.
“It gradually evolved from that to publicizing (Hillary) Clinton’s shortcomings and ignoring the products of hacking Republican institutions, which the Russians also did,” the official said.
By the fall, the official said, it became an effort to help Trump’s campaign because “Putin believed he would be much friendlier to Russia, especially on the matter of economic sanctions” than Democratic rival Clinton.
NBC reported earlier that U.S. intelligence officials have “a high level of confidence” Putin was personally involved in the Russian cyber campaign against the United States.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told state TV channel Rossiya-24 that he was “dumbstruck” by the NBC report.
“I think this is just silly, and the futility of the attempt to convince somebody of this is absolutely obvious,” he said.
Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, has brushed off reports of Russian hacking of U.S. political institutions.
“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?” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter on Thursday.
When asked about the NBC report, Trump transition team spokesman Jason Miller said:
“I’ll let the president-elect’s tweets speak for themselves. But I’d say the continued efforts to try to delegitimize the election. . .at a certain point, you’ve got to realize the election from last month has got to stand.”
In October, the U.S. government formally accused Russia of a campaign of cyber attacks against U.S. political organizations ahead of the election. Obama said he warned Putin about consequences and last week ordered a review by the U.S. intelligence agencies.
Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security advisor, told MSNBC on Thursday: “I don’t think things happen in the Russian government of this consequence without Vladimir Putin knowing about it.”
The three U.S. officials who spoke to Reuters said the fact Putin was in charge was not surprising and standard operating procedure.
“If anything, given his background as a KGB officer, Putin has a much tighter grip on all Russian intelligence operations, civilian and military, foreign and domestic, than any democratic leader does,” one official said.
A senior U.S. official said last week that the CIA has concluded that Russia intervened in the election to help Trump win the White House, and not just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system.
The reports of Russian hacking have raised concerns among both political parties in Congress, with top Republicans breaking with Trump to call for closer scrutiny.
Some Republican lawmakers have also questioned Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who has close business ties to the Russian government.
(Reporting by Washington newsroom and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Alistair Bell)
IMAGE: Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to Germany’s Bild newspaper at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, Russia, January 5, 2016. REUTERS/Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin