Maybe it was inevitable.
Even if the US intelligence community had more carefully coordinated the roll-out of its report on Russian hacking of the presidential election with Donald Trump and his team, the broader issue of whether it undermines the president-elect’s legitimacy would have been too hot for him to come to some consensus with the agencies.
The US intelligence community’s report released Friday not only concluded that Russia tried to hack the election, a conclusion it put out in October, but that Moscow had also tried to either help Trump, hurt Hillary Clinton, or both.
While at an earlier stage that second conclusion might have been in dispute between the CIA and the FBI – on Friday the FBI stood shoulder to shoulder with the CIA on Russia trying to assist Trump.
No one is saying that Russia’s intervention decisively changed the outcome of the election, or that it affected voting machines, as Trump pointed out in a statement.
In fact, the report noted that Russia had to scrap a propaganda campaign at the last minute when it realized Trump would win. It had planned the campaign anticipating a Clinton win.
So it needs to be said that Trump won the election fair and square – and the Obama administration has said this.
Nevertheless, worried or paranoid that parts of the US public might interpret the report as saying that he did not win the election fairly or was in Russian’s pocket, Trump merely conceded (finally) that Russia was involved in hacking, but continued to attack, as politicization of the issue, the conclusion that he was helped.
Most observers on both sides of the aisle who are not on the Trump team view his attack on a unanimous US intelligence community – now including the FBI – as politicizing US intelligence operations.
Most top Republicans endorsed the report’s findings and said that the US needs a new strategy in dealing with Russian cyber hacking.
This is probably the second reason that the report’s conclusions were going to be politicized.
Trump wants a closer relationship with Russia, seeing it as in the US’s broader interests. This report pulls the rug from under that goal.
His nominee for the CIA, Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo, will soon go before the Senate. How Pompeo handles the issue during his confirmation hearing and presumably once he is confirmed will be the key to whether the politicization of intelligence will rock the entire Trump administration, or whether the current uptick in tensions can be healed once he feels in control of the intelligence community with his people in place.
The issue is crucial because at the end of the day, politics aside, the US will need bipartisan agreement to confront a much more aggressive Russian cyber threat than it has ever faced before.