How Evan McMullin went from fringe candidate to top Trump irritant

McMullin on the Russia hacks and what we’re missing

Evan McMullin estimates he had 131 Twitter followers when he entered the presidential race in August. Today he has 168,000.

Despite a campaign that never had a shot of landing him in the White House and only made the ballot in 11 states, McMullin has rapidly built up his image as a principal irritant of President-elect Donald Trump. On his "thank you" tour, Trump has taken to calling McMullin "McMuffin" and proclaiming "I never heard of this guy before."

"I think the reason for that is I'm his only opponent during the election who has stayed vocal," said McMullin, in an interview Monday at CNBC's San Francisco bureau. "I wasn't just running against him in the election because I was only committed to liberty and equality for a few months. I was running against him because I knew, I saw the danger that he posed to the country."

McMullin, a former CIA operative, investment banker and chief policy director of the House Republican Conference, is in San Francisco to meet with investors and potential partners as he tries to figure out where to go from here. He lived in the Bay Area from 2010 to 2013 when he worked for Goldman Sachs.

Our charming President-elect @realDonaldTrump has a new nickname for me: "McMuffin." I like it. Am I now on the hook to reciprocate?

Having run as an independent conservative candidate and with a growing audience on both sides of the political aisle, the 40-year-old McMullin is in a unique position to build a resistance to what he views as the dangers and potential overreaches of a future President Trump.

The Utah native and former Mormon missionary, who won 21 percent of the vote in his home state, isn't ready to divulge his plans, in large part because he's not sure exactly how it will all unfold. But he did tell CNBC that he's very interested in combining the power of digital media with real political action.

"Those of us who are standing for freedom and for our democracy, we've got to learn to use those tools much better than we have," he said. "We've got to stand for truth and use digital media in order to do that most effectively."

Of gravest concern to McMullin is the influence that Russia is having in the U.S. in ways that go well beyond hacking the Democratic National Committee's computer system and leaking emails with the intent, according to the CIA and FBI, of swaying the election to Trump.

Former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin.
Jeniece Pettitt | CNBC

RT, a Russian news network that airs in the U.S., has been intentionally running stories to undermine Americans' faith in democracy, he said. At the same time, Russia has close ties to white supremacists and has "an army of online trolls" sent to pose as Americans and attack Trump critics. McMullin sees the same playbook being used in Germany and across Western democracies.

Trump made clear throughout the campaign that he wants to improve relations with Russia, in stark contrast to President Barack Obama, who authorized sanctions against Russia for violating Ukraine's sovereignty. Trump also announced Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his choice for secretary of State. Tillerson has criticized U.S. sanctions on Russia and was awarded Russia's Order of Friendship by President Vladimir Putin in 2013.

"The fact that these attacks are happening but we have a president-elect who wants to partner with our attackers is absolutely unconscionable," McMullin said.

A Trump spokesperson didn't respond to a request for comment.

McMullin launched his presidential bid in August as an unknown in national politics. By then he had missed filing deadlines for more than half the states and was not only facing Trump and Hillary Clinton but two other third-party candidates. Including write-ins, voters in 34 states could ultimately cast their ballot for McMullin.

At the time of his announcement, he called Clinton a "corrupt career politician" with questionable judgment and ethics and said Trump "appeals to the worst fears of Americans at a time when we need unity, not division." He didn't delve much into his own positions except to say that he's for limited government, embracing human life, limiting national debt and defending the Constitution.

In the aftermath of the election and with his loud and constant criticism of Trump, McMullin has raised his profile in a way that's unfamiliar.

"I had spent my entire professional career trying to avoid the limelight," McMullin said, highlighting his 11 years as a CIA officer. "So I wasn't looking for any kind of media attention or for a big footprint on social media."

While McMullin is enthused about the reception he's getting from citizens, he's less optimistic about what he sees in Congress. He said that very few Republican or Democratic senators and representatives are speaking out against Trump because they're afraid of retribution or that he'll harm their re-election bids.

McMullin is still considering a future in politics and said, "there are seats that are interesting" in Utah.

That's down the line. Right now, McMullin is moving quickly because he said there's no time to wait. His concern about Trump and his Cabinet and the ongoing threat of Russia require rapid mobilization from both parties as well as independents, he said.

"One thing I want to prevent from happening is this issue of Russia attacking our democracy becoming a partisan issue," he said. "We can't let that happen. That's why voices on the right are so critical right now, and there are so few of them standing up."