Russian meddling in election meant as 'warning' to Clinton, former AG says

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Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election may have been meant more as a warning to Hillary Clinton about Moscow’s capabilities than an earnest bid to boost then-candidate Donald Trump, former U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey argues.

In a piece published in the Wall Street Journal, the former AG for the George W. Bush administration speculated that Russian President Vladimir Putin never thought Trump would win the election and instead wanted to “send a warning” to Clinton that Russia could have information from her hacked personal email server.

“Consider the Justice Department inspector general's report on the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of an unauthorized and vulnerable email server,” Mukasey wrote. “It found that the bureau had concluded the server could well have been penetrated without detection. Recall also that some of the people hacked by GRU [Russia’s military intelligence agency] agents were aware of that server and mentioned it in messages they sent, so that the Russians too were aware of it.”

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Mukasey added: “There are some 30,000 emails that Mrs. Clinton did not turn over, on the claim that they were personal and involved such trivia as yoga routines and Chelsea's wedding. If they instead contained damaging information -- say, regarding Clinton Foundation fundraising -- the new president would have taken office in the shadow of a sword dangling from a string held by the Russians.”

Pointing to the indictment last week of 12 GRU agents, the former attorney general also suggested that Putin wanted U.S. intelligence services to discover Russian meddling in the election -- and that if he really wanted agents from Moscow to go undetected he would have used a far more capable source than the former Russian “special-forces types” that make up GRU.

“The defendants all are said to be members of GRU,” Mukasey said in the Journal. “Their acts, as portrayed in the indictment, obviously were detected -- in exquisite detail -- by U.S. intelligence services. GRU's phishing venture, although widespread, was primitive compared with the SVR's capabilities.”

The SVR is Russia’s top foreign intelligence agency and the successor of the infamous KGB – the former Soviet security agency where Putin served as a lieutenant colonel.

Publicly, Putin continues to deny meddling.

In an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace on Monday, Putin once again denied that Russia interfered in the U.S. elections – calling it “utterly ridiculous” that some people think the Russians could have swayed millions of American voters.

“Interference with the domestic affairs of the United States -- do you really believe that someone acting from the Russian territory could have influenced the United States and influenced the choice of millions of Americans?” Putin said. “This is utterly ridiculous.”

Trump, meanwhile, was assailed by lawmakers from both parties for not pressing Putin on the meddling and going so far as to question American intelligence agencies and last week's federal indictments, during their joint press conference Monday in Finland.

"I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said. "He just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be.”

Sen. John McCain of Arizona was the most outspoken Republican critic of the president on Monday, declaring that Trump made a "conscious choice to defend a tyrant" and achieved "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory." House Speaker Paul Ryan, who rarely criticizes Trump, stressed there was "no question" that Russia had interfered.

Former CIA Director John Brennan, who served under President Barack Obama, called Trump's words "nothing short of treasonous." Brennan tweeted: "Not only were Trump's comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???"

The Associated Press contributed to this report.