Inside Washington

Joe Biden grapples with Russian hack as Trump team begins to fall away

The Biden administration will begin its term with the thorniest of foreign policy problems, writes Griffin Connolly

Tuesday 22 December 2020 13:38 GMT
Donald Trump and Bill Barr in happier times
Donald Trump and Bill Barr in happier times (AP)

Near the top of the list of issues President-elect Joe Biden must set straight when he takes office next month is what to do with Russia.

US intelligence reports that have trickled into the public sphere all indicate that the Kremlin is responsible for the massive cyber-incursion into wide swaths of the US government, including the highest echelons of the Departments of Treasury, Commerce and Energy.

Donald Trump has, yet again, inexplicably given Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, the benefit of the doubt – postulating that perhaps it was China who perpetrated the hack. (His evidence for this claim is anyone’s guess.)

Yet as Mr Biden and his national security team continued to mull retaliatory actions – including a cyber attack of equal or greater magnitude against Russian government and infrastructure – even Mr Trump’s own advisers are paying less and less attention to him when it comes to the US’s actual posture.

Outgoing Attorney General Bill Barr, who has shielded Mr Trump and his cronies from legal scrutiny and punishment over the last nearly two years, sided against the president on the hack.

“From the information I have, I agree with [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo’s assessment, it certainly appears to be the Russians but I’m not going to discuss it beyond that,” Mr Barr told a press conference.

It was just another example of how Mr Trump’s advisers have been ever more willing to publicly contradict him in the weeks since his election defeat. And the response to the Russian attack is as strong an indicator as any of his waning influence on actual US policy and the fact that some people in his inner circle have eyes beyond the final days of this administration.

But Mr Trump is still president for the next four weeks, and Congress will need his signature to pass a $900bn Covid relief package into law by next week – along with a $1.4trn government spending omnibus – in order to avoid a government shutdown.

On Monday, the House and Senate both passed the sweeping bipartisan agreement, the second most expensive piece of legislation in US history, meaning millions of Americans could receive their $600 stimulus checks via direct deposit by the new year holiday.

Meanwhile, Mr Biden received his coronavirus vaccine shot on live TV on Monday, part of a government-wide campaign urging Americans to trust the safety of the jab.

“I'm doing this to demonstrate that people should be prepared when it's available to take the vaccine. There's nothing to worry about. I'm looking forward to the second shot,” the president-elect said.

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