The extraordinary report on Russia's attempt to influence the outcome of the presidential election should leave no illusions about the threat Moscow's interference poses to America's democratic order and civil institutions. Yet even after being briefed by the nation's top intelligence agencies, President-elect Donald Trump continues to soft-pedal Russia's aggression, downplay its cyber capabilities and put his own ego ahead of American values and national security. After he takes office, Trump and congressional Republicans should take a more serious approach to fashioning an appropriate response and improve cyber security so outside forces cannot hijack our democracy.
Intelligence officials briefed Trump on their findings that Russia hacked into U.S. computer systems with the intent of helping the Republican nominee defeat Hillary Clinton. After meeting with the president-elect in New York, the agencies released a declassified version of a fuller report given to Trump, President Barack Obama and members of Congress. While relatively brief and without much of the supporting evidence that was included in the classified version, the public report still makes clear that Russia hacked into U.S. computer networks "to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process" and to "denigrate Clinton," harming her electability and her potential presidency. The report singled out Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he ordered a broad and organized cyber campaign "to help President-elect Trump's election chances."
The intelligence community could not have been clearer about what happened, Russia's intentions or the implications for the United States and its Western allies as Moscow looks to build on its cyber warfare capabilities and deploy new attacks in the future. The National Security Agency, the CIA and the FBI found that Russia waged a multifaceted campaign that blended traditional spying with a propaganda effort using third parties to harvest and spread information damaging to Clinton. Even more, the agencies found that Russia intended to use the 2016 campaign as a template to meddle elsewhere. "Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign," the report found, to future efforts "including against U.S. allies and their election processes."
The report amounted to a full-throated repudiation of Trump's claims since the election that the hacking concerns are a witch hunt or sour grapes by Democrats. While he softened that language somewhat after his briefing Friday, Trump insisted that any hacking had not affected the outcome of the election. The intelligence agencies did not make any conclusions about the impact of Russia's meddling, and there is no way to confirm how a campaign aimed at changing voters' minds might have succeeded. But that is not the point. Russia effectively interfered in the election, with the goal of making America friendlier toward Russia — and that should alarm every American.
There is nothing to brag about in having been Putin's choice, and there is no reason for Trump to continue to question the professionalism of America's intelligence agencies. Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina recognize the need for Congress to investigate and for the United States to respond. They should work with Trump after he takes office and create a comprehensive approach that sends a clear message to Russia and the world that this nation will not tolerate foreign interference that compromises the integrity of its elections.