Mike Pence is defending his President-elect Donald Trump’s tweets casting doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that the Russian government was behind the hacking of the DNC and the Clinton campaign.
But in a subtle but notable move, Pence has backed up his running mate without ever saying that he agrees with Mr. Trump’s skeptical view of the nation’s intelligence services.
At a Capitol Hill press conference on Wednesday, Pence called Mr. Trump’s skepticism “very sincere” and “healthy.”
“Given some of the intelligence failures of recent years, the President-elect made it clear to the American people that he’s skeptical about conclusions from the bureaucracy,” Pence said with House Republican leaders at his side as he justified Mr. Trump’s tweets.
“I think the American people hear him loud and clear,” Pence added.
Those comments come ahead of a Friday briefing where the duo will be briefed by the heads of major intelligence and law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and CIA, about the hacks.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly said he was unsure if Russia was responsible for the hacks and has argued that “we ought to get on with our lives.” On Wednesday, Trump on Twitter referenced comments by Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks and the the publisher of many of the Democratic emails, to push back on the assertion that Russia was behind the hacks.
Previous comments by Pence suggest that he actually may not totally agree with Trump on the hacking issue. At the very least, the two are striking markedly different tones.
In a mid-October interview with Fox News Sunday, Pence was asked whether he believed Russia was behind the hacks and whether it trying to influence the election. “I think there’s no question that the evidence continues to point in that direction,” he said at the time, “and we should follow it where it leads.”
He continued: “There should be severe consequences to Russia or any sovereign nation that is compromising the privacy or the security of the United States of America.”
Upon receiving his first intelligence briefing as a Vice Presidential candidate in September, Pence also expressed his “gratitude” to U.S. intelligence personnel and spoke glowingly of their “professionalism” and “thoroughness.” That briefing happened around the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
“The American people owe a debt of gratitude to the thousands of men and women each and every day who get up and ensure that we have the information to ensure a day like that never happens again in America,” Pence said at the time.
Trump has been far less effusive of his praise of American spies. After it became clear the CIA believes Russia performed the hacks with the intention of helping Trump, the president-elect’s team responded by mocking the agency over its performance in the lead-up to the Iraq War.
“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” read a statement from Mr. Trump’s transition team. “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”
Mr. Trump’s skepticism toward the reports into Russian involvement in the hacking have met a mixed response from his fellow Republicans. A few, most notably Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, have emphatically defended US intelligence and pushed back against Trump’s doubts.
“This was done by the Russians, and I hope by Friday, President-elect Trump will come to that realization,” Graham said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday, urging Trump to “condemn” and “ignore” Assange.
Graham also called Trump’s tweets on the issue “very disturbing.”
On Thursday morning, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and NSA head Admiral Mike Rogers will testify before at a hearing convened by McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, which will address Russian hacking during the election.
Some Republicans who are inclined to be hawkish on Russia without criticizing Trump struggled on Wednesday. Rep. Martha Blackburn was asked in an interview with CNN whether she viewed Assange, who has repeatedly published sensitive U.S. documents pertaining to national security, as a credible source. “Mr. Trump has a direct line of communication with the American people,” she began, in an apparent attempt to dodge the question.
“I don’t know if I would put a whole lot of trust in Julian Assange…it’s not someone that I put on page one to find out what’s going on,” she then said when pressed on the issue.
Despite calling the Wikileaks founder a “sychophant for Russia,” Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan declined to weigh in on Trump’s tweets in a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt Wednesday morning. But the Speaker expressed hope that Trump would “get up to speed about what has been happening and be better informed about it.”
Other Republicans have joined in Trump’s attacks against the nation’s intelligence services and gone even further than the President elect. Last month, New York Republican Rep. Peter King, the former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and currently a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, asserted that CIA director John Brennan orchestrated a “hit job” on Trump.
For their part, Democrats, who generally are more critical of the CIA and other intelligence services, have come to the defense of the agencies in response to Trump.
“To suggest that we don’t have sophisticated tools that allow us to know who has conducted hacks is ill informed and to suggest that somehow that we should rely more on Julian Assange than the intelligence community is deeply misguided,” Democratic Senator Chris Coons declared late Wednesday afternoon at a press conference following a meeting with Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for Secretary of State.
“I suspect there is going to be a strong bipartisan pushback,” Coons predicted, “if the president elect and senior leaders in his administration continue along this path.”