Not long after Mike Pompeo became the first member of the Trump administration to blame Russia for wide-ranging hacks of US government agencies and private companies which have sent Washington scrambling to fill the breach, the president sought to play the hack down.
In response, one senior congressional Democrat accused Trump of “another scandalous betrayal of our national security”.
“The Cyber Hack is far greater in the Fake News Media than in actuality,” Trump tweeted on Saturday morning. “I have been fully briefed and everything is well under control. Russia, Russia, Russia is the priority chant when anything happens because [US media] is, for mostly financial reasons, petrified of discussing the possibility that it may be China (it may!)”
On Friday night, speaking to the rightwing talk radio host Mark Levin, Pompeo placed blame squarely on Russia.
“This was a very significant effort,” he said. “I think it’s the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.”
Regardless, Trump chose to tag his secretary of state and director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe in another tweet that contained another baseless claim of electoral fraud in the presidential contest he lost to Joe Biden, but which he has not conceded.
“There could also have been a hit on our ridiculous voting machines during the election,” Trump wrote, “which is now obvious that I won big, making it an even more corrupted embarrassment for the USA.”
Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the House intelligence committee and led impeachment proceedings against Trump, said: “Another day, another scandalous betrayal of our national security by this president. Another dishonest tweet that sounds like it could have been written in the Kremlin. Another obsequious display towards Putin. And yet another reason that Trump can’t leave office fast enough.”
Pompeo did not immediately respond to being undercut by his boss. But in speaking to Levin, he discussed actual cyber fraud, as determined to have been carried out against US agencies and companies.
“I’m sure some of it will remain classified,” he said. “But suffice it to say there was a significant effort to use a piece of third-party software to essentially embed code inside of US government systems and it now appears systems of private companies and companies and governments across the world as well.”
The Kremlin denies involvement.
Earlier this week, as computer security teams attempted to limit the damage, critics including Mitt Romney pressed for Trump to speak out.
Speaking to SiriusXM radio, the Utah Republican senator and former presidential candidate said: “What I find most astonishing is that a cyber hack of this nature is really the modern equivalent of, almost, Russian bombers reportedly flying undetected over the entire country.
“In this setting, not to have the White House aggressively speaking out and protesting and taking punitive action is really, really quite extraordinary.”
Asked about Romney’s remarks, Pompeo said: “I saw this in my time running the world’s premier espionage service at the CIA. There are many things that you’d very much love to say, ‘Boy, I’m going to call that out,’ but a wiser course of action to protect the American people is to calmly go about your business and defend freedom.”
US-Russia ties have been strained by issues ranging from conflicts in Syria and Ukraine to allegations of Russian interference in US politics, specifically the 2016 election and in favour of Trump, which Moscow also denies. At an annual news conference on Thursday, Vladimir Putin said he hoped Biden would help resolve some issues in relations between Moscow and Washington.
The state department said on Saturday the US was halting work at two consulates in Russia, citing safety and security issues at facilities where operations had been curtailed because of Covid-19.
In consultation with Ambassador John Sullivan, Pompeo decided to shut the consulate in Vladivostok and suspend operations in Yekaterinburg, a state department representative told Reuters. The decision, part of “ongoing efforts to ensure the safe and secure operation of the US diplomatic mission in the Russian Federation”, did not affect Russian consulates in the US, the statement said, without offering detailed reasons for the move.
Asked this week about Russian reports the two consulates might be closed, the US embassy in Moscow said it had suspended operations in Vladivostok and rolled back operations in Yekaterinburg in March because of the pandemic.
The closures will leave the embassy in Moscow as the last US diplomatic mission in Russia. It is unclear if the closures will happen before 20 January, when Biden takes office.
Speaking to Levin, Pompeo said: “We have lots of folks that want to undermine our way of life, our republic, our basic democratic principles. Russia is certainly on that list … You see the news of the day with respect to their efforts in the cyber space. We’ve seen this for an awfully long time, using asymmetric capabilities to try and put themselves in a place where they can impose costs on the United States.
“So yes, Vladimir Putin remains a real risk to those of us who love freedom.”