Allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential race first surfaced more than a year ago.
Since then, Donald Trump—as a candidate, as president-elect and finally as president—has weighed in on the topic.
In some ways, his position has evolved: from saying that the story of Russian interference was spread (and possibly invented) by sore-losing Democrats to conceding that Russia was behind the hacks of Democrats’ computer systems, and ultimately to confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin about the allegations.
But in other ways, Trump’s position has remained consistent: He maintains that even if Russia did interfere, that had no impact on the election’s outcome; he has repeatedly expressed doubt that Russia was behind the hacks (even after publicly saying it was); he has insisted that his campaign did not have any back-door dealings with Russia, calling claims to the contrary part of a political “witch hunt”; and he has defended those close to him as they have been accused of colluding with Moscow.
A declassified version of a report by the U.S. Intelligence Community said in January that “Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election” whose “goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”
The intelligence officials “further assess[ed that] Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump” and that they used various means—including cyber and disinformation—in pursuit of their goals.
Several investigations are ongoing— one probe by a Justice Department-appointed special counsel and a few more in various committees of the House of Representatives and Senate.
Below, we try to trace the arc of Trump’s comments on the topic of Russian election interference.
- July 2016: After Wikileaks released some 20,000 emails from a breach of the Democratic National Convention’s computers, which the DNC blamed on Russia, Trump said: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails [of Hillary Clinton] that are missing. … They probably have them. I’d like to have them released.”
He later said he was being “sarcastic,” but repeatedly said the story about his close ties to Russia was untrue and was being spread by Democrats angry over their candidate’s loss.
On July 27 Trump tweeted: “Funny how the failing @nytimes is pushing Dems narrative that Russia is working for me because Putin said ‘Trump is a genius.’ America 1st!” ( The Washington Post, 06.01.17, AP, 07.28.16)
- September 2016: Trump told RT, a Russian state-funded television network, on Sept. 8 that “it’s probably unlikely” that Russia is trying to influence the U.S. election.
When RT’s Larry King asked about reports that U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating whether Russia is trying to disrupt the election through cyberattacks, Trump said, “I think maybe the Democrats are putting that out… If they are doing something, I hope that somebody’s going to be able to find out, so they can end it, because that would not be appropriate at all.” ( RFE/RL, 09.09.16)
- October 2016: Speaking on Oct. 9 at the second presidential debate—two days after U.S. intelligence agencies said they were “confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of emails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations”—Trump said: “I notice anytime anything wrong happens, they like to say the Russians are—she [Hillary Clinton] doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia.” (The Washington Post, 10.09.16, 06.01.17 )
- December 2016: As president-elect, Trump said in a Dec. 11 interview that he did not believe American intelligence assessments that Russia had intervened to help his candidacy, casting blame for the reports on Democrats, who he said were embarrassed about losing to him.
“I don’t believe they interfered. That became a laughing point—not a talking point, a laughing point. Any time I do something, they say, ‘Oh, Russia interfered.’ It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey. I think the Democrats are putting it out because they suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics in this country,” Trump said.
His transition team said: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’” ( The Washington Post, 12.09.16, The Washington Post, 12.09.16, The Washington Post, 12.09.16. New York Times, 12.11.16, New York Times, 12.11.16)
- Trump returned to the topic on Twitter on Dec. 15: “If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act? Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?” he tweeted. ( New York Times, 12.15.16)
- Hours after the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 suspected Russian spies and issued sweeping new sanctions against Moscow on Dec. 29, Trump said it was “time for the country to move on to bigger and better things” but also promised to study the related allegations more closely: “[I]n the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation,” the president-elect said in a statement.
When Putin surprised U.S. officials the following day by saying he would not retaliate with a tit-for-tat expulsions, Trump tweeted: “Great move on the delay” and, in in reference to the Russian president, “I always knew he was very smart.” ( The Washington Post, 12.29.16, The Washington Post, 02.09.17)
- January 2017: An unverified dossier accusing Russia of gathering sexually explicit material to blackmail Trump was published online by Buzzfeed. Trump vigorously denied the swirl of allegations, calling it “fake news” and praising Putin for saying it was false.
Trump called BuzzFeed “a pile of garbage” for publishing the allegations. In comments made before a Jan. 11 news conference, Trump said that “Russia has never tried to use leverage over me” and criticized intelligence agencies, saying they “should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public.” “One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?” Trump said. ( RFE/RL, 01.07.17, The Moscow Times, 01.09.17, RFE/RL, 01.07.17)
- Trump conceded for the first time that Russia was behind the hacking of Democrats’ computer systems during the presidential election. “I think it was Russia,” Trump said at the Jan. 11 press conference.
Trump and most fellow Republicans in Congress have concluded that while Russia may have hacked the November election, it had no influence on the outcome. Trump has also vowed to take aggressive action to stop cyberattacks, but prior to seeing the classified intelligence report on Jan. 6, insisted in an interview with the New York Times that the storm over Russian hacking was a “political witch-hunt.”
Trump said on Jan. 13 that his administration would produce a full report on hacking within the first 90 days of his presidency and accused “my political opponents and a failed spy” of making “phony allegations” against him. ( Bloomberg, 01.13.17, RFE/RL, 01.07.17, The Moscow Times, 01.09.17, RFE/RL, 01.07.17)
- Trump called for a congressional investigation of NBC News for reporting the contents of a classified intelligence report about alleged Russian computer hacking targeting U.S. elections. (NBC reported that the document concludes, among other things, that the hacks were payback for the Obama administration’s questioning of Putin’s legitimacy as Russia’s president.)