NEW YORK — President-elect Donald Trump appeared to side with controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange over U.S. intelligence officials Wednesday, citing the activist's assertion that Russia did not provide his organization with the hacked Democratic emails that roiled the 2016 election.
Trump's latest challenges to the intelligence community — which has assessed that Russia interfered in the election on the Republican's behalf — comes as the government rushes to finish a highly anticipated report on the hacking. The president-elect is expected to be briefed on the report Friday by CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James Comey and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Donald Trump speaks to reporters at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. on Dec. 28, 2016. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)
Clapper is also testifying on Capitol Hill Thursday. But he could be limited in what he can say about the report's conclusions given that Trump — and perhaps President Barack Obama, who ordered the report — will not have been briefed by the time he steps before lawmakers.
The gulf between the intelligence community's assessment and the public information available to support that assessment has given Trump an opening to question whether Russia was behind hacking of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, a top aide to campaign rival Hillary Clinton. Trump's resistance has put him at odds with Obama and lawmakers in both parties, raising questions about why an incoming American president appears to believe Russia's denials over the intelligence agencies he will soon oversee.
Trump's posture has appeared to stem in part from concerns that the allegations of Russian election interference delegitimized his victory. But Trump aides have argued Trump's position isn't personal, but based on what he sees as incomplete or inconclusive information.
'Healthy American skepticism'
Spokesman Sean Spicer said Wednesday that Trump has received "raw data" on the hacking during daily intelligence briefings. But he said the president-elect was "more skeptical of the conclusions that are drawn."
Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, who met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday, said Trump was expressing "his very sincere and healthy American skepticism" about intelligence conclusions.
"Given some of the intelligence failures of recent years the president-elect's made it clear to the American people that he's skeptical of conclusions from the bureaucracy and I think the American people hear him loud and clear," Pence said.
The nature of the presidency gives the commander in chief discretion to decide how to respond to intelligence assessments. But any skepticism about the agencies' conclusions usually plays out privately in the Situation Room and Oval Office, not on Twitter — Trump's main forum for challenging the intelligence community and others.
Julian Assange said "a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta" - why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2017
On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted about a Fox News interview in which Assange denied Russia provided WikiLeaks with Podesta's emails. WikiLeaks released thousands of Podesta's files throughout the final weeks of the presidential election.
"Julian Assange said 'a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta' — why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!" Trump wrote.
It was remarkable for the incoming president to give credibility to Assange, whose organization has been under criminal investigation for its role in classified information leaks. Assange has said his source for the hacked emails WikiLeaks published during the campaign was not a government, but his assertion has left open the possibility they came from a third party.
On Tuesday night, Trump cast more doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies by saying his briefing on the hacking report has been delayed. "Perhaps more time needed to build a case," he wrote.
The "Intelligence" briefing on so-called "Russian hacking" was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2017
Trump's tweets caused confusion among intelligence officials, who said there was no delay in the briefing schedule.
The fresh clash came as Trump took further steps to fill his Cabinet and key White House positions, with his attention shifting toward the challenges of governing.
He announced that he wants Wall Street lawyer Jay Clayton to be chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, saying in a statement that his pick is "a highly talented expert on many aspects of financial and regulatory law."
Trump has repeatedly said he wants to undo many regulations that he says have "stifled investment" in Americans' businesses. Clayton, in a statement, said he'll "carefully monitor" the financial sector and set policies that encourages companies to create jobs.
Clayton is the latest Trump pick with deep ties to Wall Street — having represented Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Barclays Capital Inc.
Pence: 'It's time to get to work'
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Pence told Republicans that Trump has signalled that "it's time to get to work" and plans to have a shorter-than-usual 90-minute Inaugural parade on Jan. 20 and then go straight to the Oval Office to begin signing executive orders repealing some of President Obama's actions. Pence did not specify the topics of the potential executive orders.
Trump also promised to hold his first formal news conference since his Nov. 8 election victory next week in New York. He has already waited longer than any other president-elect in the modern era to hold his first exchange with journalists. Most have held such events within days of their elections.
Transition officials said Wednesday that Trump would address his business during a wide-ranging press conference but it was not clear if he would fully outline how he plans to avoid potential conflicts of interest involving the Trump Organization after taking office.