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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Spinning the Russian Report

Ever since U.S. intelligence agencies released a report on Russia’s attempts to influence the U.S. presidential election, President-elect Donald Trump and his top aides have made false and misleading comments about the report’s findings:

  • Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s choice for White House counselor, falsely claimed that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper “makes very clear that there was no impact on the election.” Actually, Clapper said there was “no way for us to gauge” the impact of Russia’s attempts to influence the election.
  • Similarly, K.T. McFarland, Trump’s pick for deputy national security adviser, claimed that Clapper said “that nothing the Russians did had any effect on the outcome [of the election].” Again, that’s not what Clapper said.
  • Trump himself tweeted that the intelligence community “stated very strongly that there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results,” because voting machines were not hacked. But the fact that no machines were hacked does not mean that the hacking did not affect the election results.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Jan. 6 released a declassified intelligence report that said “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.” Among other things, the report said, Russian intelligence services gained access to Democratic National Committee computers for nearly a year, from July 2015 to June 2016, and released hacked material to WikiLeaks and other media outlets “to help President-elect Trump’s election chances.”

From the day the report first dropped, Trump and his supporters have hammered the misleading talking point that the report showed Russian tampering didn’t affect the results of the election.

On Jan. 7, Trump tweeted that the report showed there was “absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results.”

That point was taken up repeatedly by top Republicans on the Sunday talk shows. On CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Jan. 8, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argued that the Russian effects, “really, in the end, made no difference … [T]here’s no evidence whatsoever that it changed the outcome of the election.”

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Conway insisted the intelligence report showed Russian efforts to sway the election toward Trump “did not succeed.”

Conway, Jan. 8: They did not succeed in throwing the election to Donald Trump. That’s very clear in this report. And I don’t want your viewers to be left with any other impression. Read the New York Times outtakes, read the Washington Post, read the report itself. There is no evidence that Russia succeeded in any alleged attempt to disrupt our democracy or in fact to influence the election results.

On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Conway raised the ante when she falsely claimed — twice — that Clapper testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that Russia’s attempts to influence the U.S. presidential election had failed.

Conway, Jan. 8: If you read the full report, they make very clear, Mr. Clapper in his testimony made very clear on Thursday under oath that the — that any attempt, any aspiration to influence our elections failed. They were not successful in doing that. And it’s a very important point.

Jake Tapper, the host of “State of the Union,” corrected Conway. “But they made no conclusion whatsoever, they said they didn’t have any evidence and it wasn’t in their charge to determine whether or not the information that was hacked by Russia that was ultimately leaked to the public, whether or not that changed any votes,” Tapper said.

Nevertheless, Conway later in the same show made the same claim.

Conway, Jan. 8: But then we’re expelling 35 Russian operatives a week before the report is even complete, a week before Mr. Clapper even goes and testifies under oath and makes very clear that there was no impact on the election. Senator [John] McCain has said the same thing.

She is right about McCain, but wrong about Clapper. Here is the exchange between the Arizona senator and the director of national intelligence at the Jan. 5 Senate hearing.

McCain, Jan. 5: If they succeeded in changing the results of an election, which none of us believe they were, that would have to constitute an attack on the United States of America because of the effects if they had succeeded. Would you agree with that?

Clapper: First, we cannot say — they did not change any vote tallies or anything of that sort.

McCain: Yeah, I’m just talking about –

Clapper: And we have no way of gauging the impact that certainly the intelligence community can’t gauge the impact that it had on choices that the electorate made. There is no way for us to gauge that.

Later in the hearing, Clapper added that election analysis “certainly isn’t the purview of the U.S. intelligence community.”

The report itself stated that the intelligence community “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcomes of the 2016 election.”

Director of National Intelligence report: The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.

In a Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing on Jan. 10, Clapper reiterated that the report “does not — repeat does not assess the impact of Russian activities on the actual outcome of the 2016 election or draw any conclusions in that regard one way or the other.”

But Trump’s team has continued with the inaccurate talking point.

A Washington Post story on Jan. 10 quotes K.T. McFarland, Trump’s pick for deputy national security adviser, saying that Clapper said “that nothing the Russians did had any effect on the outcome [of the election].”

McFarland, Jan. 10: I’m not going to say what Donald Trump thinks about the election and what involvement the Russians had. I think I’d just say what [Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.] said, which is that nothing the Russians did had any effect on the outcome.

Again, the intelligence report takes no position on whether the Russian hacks swayed voters to cast votes for Trump.

We certainly can’t say whether the information revealed by WikiLeaks influenced voters. But prior to the election, Trump used the WikiLeaks documents as a campaign pitch. At campaign rallies, Trump repeatedly made reference to the leaked emails. He read excerpts from Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches that were part of the hacked information and cited hacked emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, twisting the facts about Clinton’s speeches and making a false claim about Podesta’s email.

Trump is entitled to his opinion that the Russian influence campaign did not change the results of the election. But he and his aides can’t say that that is the conclusion of Clapper and the intelligence community’s report.

Correction, Feb. 15, 2018: Clapper testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 5, 2017. This article has been updated to correct the name of the committee.