President-elect Donald Trump was "obviously aware" the hacking campaign orchestrated against the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, was benefiting his chances of getting elected, White House press secretary Josh Earnest has said.
Speaking during a press conference on 14 December, Earnest referenced a controversial statement Trump made back in July, when he asserted that Russian hackers would be "rewarded mightily" for helping to locate 30,000 "missing" emails from Clinton's private server.
"There was ample evidence that was known long before the election, and in most cases long before October, about the Trump campaign in Russia – [including] the Republican nominee himself calling on Russia to hack his opponent," Earnest said.
"It might be an indication that he was obviously aware and concluded, based on whatever facts or sources he had available to him, that Russia was involved and their involvement was having a negative impact on his opponent's campaign – that's why he was encouraged them to keep doing it."
He added: "The Republican nominee referred to the president of Russia as a strong leader, the Republican nominee chose a campaign chair that had extensive, lucrative and personal financial ties to the Kremlin and it was obvious [...] the hack and leak strategy that had been operationalised was not being equally applied to the two parties."
In a Thursday morning appearance on "Fox and Friends," Conway attacked Earnest for suggesting that Trump was aware that Russia was behind a series of hacks detrimental to Democrats and Hillary Clinton's campaign. "That is incredibly disappointing to hear from the podium of the White House press secretary because he ... essentially stated that the president-elect had knowledge of this, maybe even fanned the flames," she said.
According to The Hill, during the campaign, Trump did encourage the Russians to reveal the contents of the private email server Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton used while secretary of State.
"I will tell you this, Russia: If you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," Trump told a news conference on July 27. "I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press."
Conway and her Fox News interviewers dubbed that remark as a joke.
"I don't think anybody at the White House thinks it's funny that an adversary of the United States engaged in malicious cyber-activity to destabilize our democracy," Earnest responded Thursday. "That is not a joke."
In October, US intelligence officially identified Russia as the culprit in a series of embarrassing hacks almost exclusively directed towards the Clinton campaign – including the infiltration at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the release of 60,000 emails stolen from the inbox of John Podesta, a close aide to Hillary Clinton.
"We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia's most senior officials could have authorised these activities," the statement said. Many cybersecurity firms analysing the breach had come to same conclusion months before.
While the Obama Administration has faced criticism for being slow to attribute the hacking to Putin's state, Earnest maintained this was because the president did not want it to appear the move to place blame was politically motivated.
"It would have been inappropriate [...] to be rushing the intelligence community to expedite their analysis of this situation, because we were concerned about the negative impact it was having on the president's preferred candidate in the presidential election," he said.
"That would have been all the more damaging in an environment where you have the Republican nominee without evidence suggesting the election was rigged," he added.
Recently, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) said it believes Russia directly interfered with the 2016 presidential election with the aim of helping to elect Donald Trump. President Vladimir Putin has denied all involvement with the alleged nation-state influence campaign.
Despite these denials, US intelligence officials, many speaking under the cloak of anonymity, said they believe with a "high level of confidence" that Putin was personally involved in Moscow's efforts to interfere in the election.
Two senior officials told NBC News this week that Putin was involved in how the material was leaked. The insiders claimed the intelligence came from "diplomatic sources" and spies working for allies of the US. Over the summer two outlets, Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks, released thousands of emails, files and documents regarding key political figures.
On 9 December, President Barack Obama ordered a "full review" of Russia's involvement in the hacking and said he expected it to be on his desk by the time his term ends on 20 January 2017.
Donald Trump has brushed off all allegations the Russian state helped him win the election. "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 on 15 December.