Trump had previously expressed disbelief in the October conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Kremlin had directed hacks and leaks to interfere in the U.S. election. He raised “doubt” about that conclusion during the third presidential debate, claiming that the culprit could be “Russia, China, or anybody else,” even though he had reportedly received intelligence briefings prior to the debate on Russia’s suspected role in the data breaches. The consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community, in other words, had not changed Trump’s opinion that, as he argued in September, the hack could be the work of Russia, China, or “lots of other people,” including “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” A couple months earlier, that list had included “some guy with a 200 I.Q. that can’t get up in the morning,” presumably because of his considerable weight.
The Killing of Alexander Litvinenko
As Politico’s Michael Crowley documented earlier this year, Trump’s position on Russia’s alleged intervention in the U.S. election is in keeping with his resistance to “intelligence, legal findings and expert opinion” that cast Putin and Russia in a negative light. In January, for instance, Trump disputed a British public inquiry’s conclusion that Putin had “probably” approved the murder of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London. “Have they found [Putin] guilty?” Trump asked. “I don’t think they’ve found him guilty. They say a lot of things about me that are untrue too. … People are saying they think it was him. ... But in all fairness to Putin—and I’m not saying this because he says ‘Trump is brilliant and leading everybody’—the fact is that he hasn’t been convicted of anything. Some people say he absolutely didn’t do it. First of all, he says he didn’t do it. Many people say it wasn’t him. So who knows who did it?”
The Downing of Flight MH17
Trump similarly questioned whether Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine had shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014, despite U.S. intelligence assessments suggesting that this was likely the case. The downing of the place was “disgusting and disgraceful,” Trump told CNN last year, “but Putin and Russia say they didn’t do it, the other side said they did, no one really knows who did it, probably Putin knows who did it. Possibly it was Russia but they are totally denying it.” The weapon used may have been Russian-made, Trump added, but the Russians “didn’t use it, they didn’t fire it, they even said the other side fired it to blame them. I mean to be honest with you, you’ll probably never know for sure.”
The Russian Air Campaign in Syria
In the fall of 2015, when the Russian military began striking “terrorist organizations” in Syria, CNN’s Don Lemon asked Trump what he made of the opinion of U.S. officials that Russia was in fact targeting Syrian rebels fighting Putin’s ally, Bashar al-Assad, rather than ISIS. “You actually believe that [the Russians are] fighting ISIS?” Lemon asked. “Well, I think they will be fighting ISIS and I think they are going to also probably try and prop up Assad and help him out,” Trump answered. “I’m hearing they’re hitting both” opposition fighters and ISIS, he added. “If Russia wants to go in and if Russia wants to fight, in particular, ISIS, and they do, and one of the reasons they do is because they don’t want ISIS coming into their country and that’s going to be the next step. So, that’s why they’re there.” (Earlier this year, the Obama administration’s envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition estimated in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee that 70 percent of Russian airstrikes had targeted the armed opposition to Assad, as opposed to ISIS. The Russian and Syrian militaries, along with Iran-affiliated militias, have since driven the rebels out of all Syria’s major cities.)