Witcover: Coping with the Russian hacking hangover

Donald Trump was quick to agree with President Vladimir Putin that alleged Russian hacking into the American presidential election was overblown and irrelevant. It immediately put the president-elect on a collision course with his own U.S. intelligence community, on which he now must rely for key national security decisions when he takes office later this month.

Mr. Trump's promised briefing from the American spymasters of the CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies should clear the air. But Mr. Trump signaled that he intends to take his time assessing it. "I just want them to be sure, because it's a pretty serious charge and I want them to be sure," he told reporters on New Year's Eve.


Mr. Trump went on to say he knows "a lot about hacking" and that it "is a very hard thing to prove, and I also know things that other people don't know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation," cryptically suggesting he had other information that would justify his doubts. The remark would be in keeping with his reputation of seldom acknowledging being wrong.

The observation also tends to explain Mr. Trump's immediate congratulation to Mr. Putin for declining to respond in kind to President Obama's sharp retribution for the alleged hacking. Of Mr. Obama's order to have 35 Russian government officials deported and two Russian facilities on American soil closed, Mr. Trump tweeted: "Great move on delay (by V. Putin), I always knew he was very smart."


To top it off, Mr. Putin invited the children of American diplomats in Moscow to a holiday party at the Kremlin. His decision not to engage in tit-for-tat with Mr. Obama by ousting U.S. diplomats mocked Mr. Obama's very limited punishment -- a diplomatic slap on the wrist -- against Russia for the hacking, attributed by veteran U.S. intelligence agents to high-ranking Moscow officials.

Mr. Putin himself said: "While we reserve the right to take reciprocal measures, we're not going to downgrade ourselves to the level of irresponsible 'kitchen' diplomacy. In our future steps on the way toward the restoration of Russia-United States relations, we will proceed from the policy pursued by the administration" of Donald Trump.

In so doing, Mr. Putin airily dismissed the lame-duck American president, and Mr. Trump not surprisingly readily agreed, saying it is "time for our country to on to bigger and better things" that he has promised in his post-election lovefest with the Russian president. His nomination as secretary of state of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, long a Putin collaborator on U.S.-Russian commercial oil deals, underscored his point.

The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, took a sterner view of the hacking allegations Sunday on the ABC News show "This Week." The Russians, he said, "didn't just steal data, they weaponized it. They dumped it during an election with the specific intent of influencing that election and sowing discord in the United States."

Two of Mr. Trump's fiercest critics in his own party, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are leading the chorus of Republican establishment figures pushing against the president-elect's efforts to "move on" from the hacking controversy, offering himself as the vehicle for a restart of the relationship with Russian leader.

In all, the controversy has further cast a pall on the last weeks of the Obama presidency. Mr. Trump has insisted on prematurely and boldly grabbing the limelight, as the departing incumbent does his best to remain relevant to the end of his eight-year tenure.

Between now and Mr. Trump's inauguration, Mr. Obama will try to rally congressional Democrats somehow to salvage his Affordable Care Act, even as Mr. Trump and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate plot to repeal it soon and replace it later.

Such an outcome would be a dismal health-care coda to a legacy Obama thought he had every reason to think would live on in a Hillary Clinton administration. And that will not be the only regret he will have to bear as Mr. Trump gets started on his reactionary vision of making America great again.


Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is