It sounded more like wishful thinking than an outright prediction.

In an interview on Friday, while President-elect Donald Trump finally received his briefing on Russian interference in last November’s presidential election, I asked Maine Sen. Angus King if he feared Trump might once again pull the rug out from under the U.S. intelligence community with a simple tweet.

“That’s a very good question,” replied King. “I think he has a profound responsibility, if he himself is convinced that the data is accurate, to convey that to the public.”

Hours later, Trump emerged from his top-secret confab and called it “constructive.”

But alas, beyond a broad-brush swipe at “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people” who continuously poke and prod our public and private cyberspace, the president-elect didn’t flat-out acknowledge that American democracy just came under attack like never before.

According to the declassified intelligence report released just after Trump’s briefing, none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fingerprints are all over the hacking, fake news and other skulduggery that bedeviled one of the ugliest presidential elections in U.S. history.

And yes, the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency all agreed, the Russians were pulling for Trump.

“Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” the report states. “We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”

Cue the deniers, who insist (with Trump’s repeated encouragement in recent weeks) that all this Russia talk is just sour grapes from never-Trumpers who still can’t handle what happened on Nov. 8.

King actually spoke on behalf of “people in Maine (who) are skeptical” during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday with James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.

Arguing for the declassification of as much information as quickly as possible, King urged, “We need to have our people understand when they are being manipulated.”

But here’s the catch. Now that the five-page report (not counting background and appendices) is out, we all share a civic duty to actually read it.

You’ll learn that in addition to the widely publicized hacking of the Democratic National Committee between July 2015 and June 2016, the Russians also “obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local election boards.”

That doesn’t mean they tinkered with the actual vote tally – in fact, the report found no evidence of that whatsoever. Nor does it opine on how heavily Russia tipped the scales toward Trump’s victory.

But it does contain this chilling warning: “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.”

That’s old news in Eastern Europe. In recent conversations with intelligence officials from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, King asked how they defend against such long-standing intrusions on their elections.

“They say the best defense is for the public to know it’s happening so they can take it with a grain of salt,” he said. “They say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s just the Russians.’ ”

Which, ironically, is exactly what most Americans used to say during the height of the Cold War. Back then, with good reason, Russia was simply not to be trusted.

Yet these days, with the Soviet Union but a dark memory, that notion has been turned on its ear.

Conservative Republicans who once feared Russia more than anything else on the planet now shrug off the alarms clanging throughout the intelligence community. Until they know exactly how the United States got its information, many say, they’re reluctant to believe a word of it.

Or they point to the debacle over bad intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in the buildup to the Iraq war – force-fitted to support the George W. Bush administration’s preconceived narrative that Saddam Hussein had to go. If that intelligence was bad, or so the theory goes, then all intelligence must be bad.

King bristles at such talk.

“Do they make mistakes? Of course. They’re making analytic judgments based upon the best information they can obtain,” he said. “Should we be skeptical? Absolutely.”

But to suggest – as Trump repeatedly has – that the probe into Russian mischief with the 2016 election is driven by partisan payback is to dishonor a legion of public servants who, in King’s opinion, deserve at least as much respect as the U.S. military.

“I really wish people knew James Clapper the way I do,” King said, citing the national intelligence director’s 53 years of nonpartisan service to every president since John F. Kennedy. “For somebody to talk about politicization of intelligence, when it’s Jim Clapper making the call, just doesn’t pass the straight-face test. And it really bothers me.”

Ditto, he said, for the thousands of operatives worldwide who quietly go about gathering intelligence in defense of America’s security interests. Whenever he travels abroad, King goes out of his way to meet with them.

“These guys take their lives in their hands when they go out to lunch,” he noted. “And they don’t get jets flying (in their honor) over football games.”

So go ahead, fellow Mainer, pour a hot coffee on this frigid winter morning and read the report. And at least listen to people like King, who also sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, when they insist that still-classified information more than supports the claim that Russia, right now, is hard at work subverting all that we hold dear.

At the same time, try not to be distracted by Trump, whose inherent insecurity shone through on Saturday when he tweeted, “Intelligence stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results.”

Relax, Mr. President-elect. As Sen. King and others have rightly noted, this whole brouhaha is not about disputing the last election.

It’s about saving the next one.

 

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