Russia wasn’t alone — North Korea and China have also breached recent U.S. elections, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said Sunday.
It was the first time someone in the Trump administration formally accused the two nations of interfering with the election, backing up vague claims from President Trump that “other countries” joined Russia in its digital interference.
On “Fox News Sunday,” host Chris Wallace asked Priebus to clarify what went down when Trump confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin about the election hacks when the two met at the G20 summit in Germany on Friday. The Kremlin said Trump accepted Putin’s denial of wrongdoing, while Trump officials insisted the American President pressed Putin for answers.
Priebus insisted that no matter what, Trump still believes Russia tampered with last year’s race.
“They did meddle in the election,” he said about Russia.
“The one thing that (Trump) also says, which drives the media crazy, but it’s an absolute fact, is that others have as well. And that’s true. China has, North Korea has and they have consistently over many, many years. So, yes, he believes that Russia probably committed all of these acts that we’ve been told of, but he also believes that other countries also participated in this.”
Priebus did not cite any evidence to back up his apparent bombshell. It was not clear if he was speaking only about the 2016 election, or if he thinks China and North Korea had a hand in other races, too.
The White House said in a statement to the Daily News that Priebus “was addressing hacking generally, not election manipulation.”
“China and NK have long histories of malicious cyber activity directed at US entities including government, industry and academia,” the statement said.
Priebus’ offhand remark raised many more questions than it answered.
At least four U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia led a series of cyberattacks on the 2016 election with the apparent aim of giving Trump an edge over Democratic contender Hillary Clinton.
But none of the intelligence reports have officially said China or North Korea played a part in that, calling into question where Priebus got his information.
Both nations have been accused of major cyberattacks on the U.S. before, but not for elections.
The U.S. accused North Korea of directing a hack of Sony Pictures emails in 2014 as revenge for “The Interview,” a comedy about a plot to assassinate the totalitarian ruler Kim Jong Un. North Korea denied responsibility.
The U.S. suspected Chinese hackers were behind a breach into the federal Office of Personnel Management that targeted data about more than 21 million people. The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied any government involvement and said the allegations were “irresponsible and unscientific.”
No evidence has emerged that data swiped in that hack factored into the 2016 cyberattacks.
Trump has never fully accepted the U.S. intelligence findings that Russia targeted the election, even as he has thrown vague blame on other nations.
He has even suggested several times, without evidence or a formal accusation, that China is a culprit.
“Could have been China, could have been a lot of different groups,” he said in April on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”
A day before his first meeting with Putin, Trump said in Warsaw that “other countries” might be guilty of the hack, though he said he thinks Russia is responsible.
No matter what Trump thinks, he has yet to announce any retaliation in response to hacks from Russia or any other country.
On Sunday, he made a confounding announcement that he talked to Putin about collaborating on cyber security, of all things.
“Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded…..and safe,” he tweeted.
Neither Trump nor the White House released further details Sunday on what, exactly, this cyber security group will be.
Even after admitting he spoke with Putin about the election hack, Trump on Twitter kept shaming his usual suspects: The Democrats, the media and Obama.
“Why did Obama do NOTHING when he had info before election?” Trump wrote in one tweet, referencing reports that Obama took no immediate action after learning about Russia’s hacks last summer.
But Trump showed no interest in hammering Russia for its meddling. And now that he brought it up with Putin, his administration made it sound like the case is closed.
“We’re not going to forgo progress (with Russia) simply because we have a disagreement in regards to this meddling in the United States election,” Priebus said.
Trump’s symbolic shrug about Russia’s meddling drew disgust from officials who want stronger action.
Former CIA Director John Brennan told NBC News’ “Meet the Press” he thought Trump’s entire handling of his Putin sit-down was “dishonorable.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who ran against Trump for the GOP nomination, tweeted, “Partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with Assad on a ‘Chemical Weapons Unit.’”
By Jason Silverstein
NY Daily News