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January 17, 2017

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Questions about hacking swirl as Trump enters crucial week

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Jon Elswick / AP

A part of the declassified version Intelligence Community Assessment on Russia’s efforts to interfere with the U.S. political process is photographed in Washington on Friday, Jan. 6, 2017. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign to influence the American presidential election in favor of electing Donald Trump, according to the report issued by U.S. intelligence agencies. The unclassified version was the most detailed public account to date of Russian efforts to interfere with the U.S. political process, with actions that included hacking into the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and individual Democrats like Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta.

President-elect Donald Trump and his aides are entering a crucial week in his presidential transition as he and his Cabinet nominees undergo public questioning about their approach to Russia and potential conflicts of interests.

Most pressing during the upcoming days of confirmation hearings and Trump's first press conference in six months likely will be whether he accepts the conclusion of U.S. intelligence officials that Russia meddled in the U.S. election to help him win the White House.

Trump's incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said Sunday that Trump indeed has accepted that Russia was responsible for the hacking, which targeted the Democratic National Committee and a top aide to former rival Hillary Clinton.

"He's not denying that entities in Russia were behind this particular campaign," Priebus said in a Sunday television interview.

That's more than Trump himself has said. As for potential retaliation, aides said those are decisions that Trump will make after he becomes president on Jan. 20.

Intelligence officials allege that Moscow directed a series of hacks in order to help Trump win the White House in the race against Clinton. Trump has expressed skepticism about Russia's role and declined to say whether he agrees that the meddling was done on his behalf.

In an interview with The Associated Press after a briefing on the findings, Trump said he "learned a lot" from his discussions with intelligence officials, but he declined to say whether he accepted their assertion about Russia's motives. Trump has said that improving relations with Russia would be a good thing and that only "stupid" people would disagree.

"My suspicion is these hopes will be dashed pretty quickly," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "The Russians are clearly a big adversary. And they demonstrated it by trying to mess around in our election.

An unclassified version of the report directly tied Russian President Vladimir Putin to election meddling and said that Moscow had a "clear preference" for Trump over Clinton. Trump and his allies have bristled at any implication that the meddling helped him win the election. He won the Electoral College vote with 306 votes, well over the 270 votes required to become president.

Accepting those findings would be a positive step, but not enough, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is calling for more penalties against Russia.

"He's going to be the defender of the free world here pretty soon," said Graham, a frequent Trump critic. "All I'm asking him is to acknowledge that Russia interfered, and push back. It could be Iran next time. It could be China."

The developments come during a consequential week for Trump, who will become the nation's 45th president on Jan. 20.

Beginning Tuesday, the Senate is to hold the first of at least nine hearings this week on Trump's Cabinet picks. But Democrats have voiced objections to the pace set by the Republican majority. The government ethics office says it hasn't received even draft financial disclosure reports for some of the nominees set to appear before Congress this week.

And on Wednesday, Trump is scheduled to hold a long-delayed news conference to describe his plans for his global business empire to avoid conflicts of interest while he's president. While Trump has taken sporadic questions from reporters, it will be his first full-fledged news conference since July 27.

Kellman reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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