Trump's Responses In U.S.-Russia Dispute Roil Congress, Intelligence Community

Jan 1, 2017
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In just 19 days, Donald Trump will take the oath of office and become the 45th president of the United States. And though new leadership always brings change, the outgoing and incoming presidents have been especially at odds in recent days. As hacking accusations mount, President Obama has taken steps to punish Russia while the president-elect has continued to praise Russian leader Vladimir Putin. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy New Year.

CHANG: Happy New Year to you, too. So where do things stand in this pretty extraordinary diplomatic moment between the U.S. and Russia now?

LIASSON: It is extraordinary. And I guess the idea of one president at a time has gone out the window because, as you said, President Obama has ordered a set of retaliations against Russia for the hacking. He said all Americans should be alarmed by the cyberattack. But one important American, the president-elect, is not only not alarmed. He's continuing to side with Putin and not President Obama. Trump has praised Putin for not retaliating in kind. Putin has said he's waiting for Trump to take office, where he is presumably expecting better treatment. Trump tweeted, great move on delay. I always knew Putin was very smart.

CHANG: Well, where's the rest of the Republican Party on all of this? What kind of schisms are we seeing?

LIASSON: Big schisms - most Republicans take the cyberattacks seriously. Mitch McConnell has said pointedly, Vladimir Putin is not our friend. Some Republicans want tougher sanctions on Russia than the ones President Obama has enacted. John McCain is going to hold hearings on this on Thursday.

CHANG: And Congress isn't the only place where he's causing rifts, right? How has Trump's response been rippling through the intelligence community?

LIASSON: We are told that morale at the CIA is very low because of Trump's dismissals of their work. Just last night at his Mar-a-Lago Club, where guests paid to attend his New Year's Eve party, he spoke to the press. And he again criticized the intelligence community for being wrong about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, suggesting they might be wrong about the Russian hacking, too.

His open affection for Putin has members of the intelligence community really puzzled and disturbed. They're asking, why is he so dismissive of Russia's dangerous behavior? Why does he consistently take the Russian line? And this seems to be more than just saying, I want a better relationship with Russia, which, of course, all incoming American presidents have said. This is something different.

And a lot of questions are being asked. Is this just a sincere admiration for a authoritarian strongman? Does he have business dealings with Russian oligarchs? Does Putin have some leverage over him? Are there hidden communications with Putin's representatives? You know, Russian diplomats said they were in touch with the Trump campaign all throughout the election. And we simply don't know the answers to these questions.

CHANG: And then there's Trump's New Year's tweet from yesterday, which read, Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don't know what to do. Love - exclamation point. So what does that tell us about the tone he might strike in his inaugural address and in the beginning of his administration?

LIASSON: You know, he's been implored by all sides to strike a unifying tone, to build on that victory speech he gave on election night. But he's not doing that. When he reads from a teleprompter like on election night, he does talk about bringing the country together. But when he's left to his own devices with his Twitter account in his own words, he still sounds thin-skinned and vindictive like a sore winner. So I think the bottom line here is, as we start a new year, there are no signs of a new Trump - at least not yet.

CHANG: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.