Two of the top national security figures in US president-elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration broke with their soon-to-be boss on Thursday.
They took a hard line against Russia even as the incoming president indicates a willingness to work with Moscow.
Defence secretary nominee James Mattis accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to damage the NATO military alliance, while the nominee to head the CIA spy agency Mike Pompeo said that the US faced one of the most “complicated” threat environments in decades, including an increasingly aggressive Russia.
The hearings came a day after Trump denounced the publication of a memo containing unverified charges allegedly including salacious details about him and claims that his officials met with the Russians during the election campaign.
The memo, reportedly based on a separate inquiry by political operatives looking into Trump’s background, was appended to the end of a report by US intelligence agencies on Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called Trump Wednesday evening to express his concern about the leaking of the information, calling it “extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security.”
The men discussed the memo by a private security company that was widely circulated in Washington to media and members of Congress before the intelligence community became aware of its existence.
Intelligence officials have not concluded if the information was credible or not and did not rely on it for its broader conclusions about Russian interference in the elections, Clapper said in a statement.
“However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security,” Clapper said.
Trump confirmed the conversation on Twitter, though he gave a different version of it, writing “James Clapper called me yesterday to denounce the false and fictitious report that was illegally circulated. Made up, phony facts. Too bad!”
The fracas is part of a broader discussion of Russian interference in the US presidential elections, including the hacking of Democratic Party emails and the private emails of a top Clinton aide.
The intelligence community said it has high confidence that Putin was behind the hacking in a bid to damage US democracy and favoured Trump while trying to harm Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Trump had questioned the Russian attribution for weeks, but conceded Wednesday that he thought Moscow was indeed behind the leak.
However he continued to downplay Russian actions, pointing to cyberattacks from other governments and suggesting it would not be bad to have a positive relationship with Putin.
Pompeo backed the intelligence, saying it was “pretty clear” that there had been a Russian effort to have an impact on “American democracy.”
“This was an aggressive action taken by the senior leadership in Russia,” Pompeo said.
“This is very real,” he added.
The hacking measures were “a long standing effort” of the Russians and others that needed to be taken seriously, Pompeo said, especially given upcoming elections in Europe.