White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest went off script Monday and attacked President-elect Donald Trump to an unprecedented degree for the outgoing administration during the transition period in which it transfers power.
Earnest castigated Trump during the White House daily press briefing for the way he ran his presidential campaign and benefited from Russian interference in the presidential election.
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"Does the White House have a position on if the Russians were attempting to interfere with the election or what their motives were? Or was it to actually help elect Donald Trump, or was it just to create chaos?" Reuters correspondent Ayesha Rascoe asked.
Rascoe also addressed the Trump team's concern that Democrats are using the hacking of political systems earlier this year to delegitimize Trump's victory last month over Hillary Clinton.
The Obama administration in October accused Russia of hacking into American political systems, including the Democratic National Committee’s computer networks, to influence the 2016 election. The U.S. intelligence community and Department of Homeland Security found cyber actors linked to the Russian government responsible for the attacks.
The DNC hack resulted in the public release of several damning emails, which led to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D., Fla.) being forced to resign as chairwoman of the DNC because of messages showing top party officials working to help Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary.
The email account of Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, was also breached, and his messages were leaked through WikiLeaks.
Earnest responded to Rascoe's question by referencing the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community in October, agreed upon by 17 intelligence agencies, saying Russia engaged in "malicious cyber activity" to try to destabilize the U.S. political system. He then said one does not need a security clearance to know who benefitted from the hacking and accused Trump of encouraging email hacks against Clinton.
"The president-elect didn't call it into question. He called on Russia to hack his opponent. He called on Russia to hack Secretary Clinton, so he certainly had a pretty good sense of whose side this activity was coming down on," Earnest said.
Earnest then criticized Trump for some of the people he surrounds himself with and their ties to Moscow.
"It was the president-elect who indicated the potential that he would withdraw from some of our critically important NATO commitments. It was the President-elect who hired a campaign chairman with extensive, lucrative, personal financial ties to Russia. It was the president-elect who had a national security adviser on the campaign that had been a paid contributor to RT, the Russian propaganda outlet," Earnest said.
He also lectured Congress on the importance of holding Trump accountable and told Republicans who support Trump that they need to examine his actions and agenda for the sake of national security.
"With everything that you just laid out, President-elect Trump has disputed the idea that Russia favored him and that Russia was interfering or meddling in the election. He says that no one knows what's going on, so I mean you basically laid out a case that that's not the case … Doesn't that cast a cloud over this election?" Rascoe asked.
Earnest responded that Russia's involvement in the cyber attacks to undermine the U.S political system represents the view of the intelligence community. He credited the intelligence community for making its assessment a month before the election.
"There's no debate I'm seeking here," Earnest said. "As I've done in the past, tried to just lay out some objective facts. The debate, the argument about the policy differences and the differences in agendas pursued by the president-elect and President Obama."
Earnest claimed that he has gone to great lengths to avoid getting into a debate with Trump's team and that his priority is to fulfill Obama's institutional responsibilities to "affect a smooth transition to the next presidency."
"What I've stated is not an argument, but really just a presentation of objective facts about what all of you and the American public knew in advance of the election. And yes, this is all material that was known by Republican politicians in the Congress that endorsed the president-elect," Earnest said.
Trump will be sworn into office on Jan. 20.