Senior Democratic lawmakers are calling for a full investigation of the CIA’s claims that Russia tilted the election to Donald Trump, demanding that the intelligence community turn over all of its evidence to Congress.
Incoming Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer (New York) released a strongly worded statement on Saturday morning, saying CIA conclusions that Russia’s hacking and other election interference had the goal of electing Trump – first reported Friday night in The Washington Post – are “stunning and not surprising.”
“That any country could be meddling in our elections should shake both political parties to their core,” Schumer stated. “Senate Democrats will join with our Republican colleagues next year to demand a congressional investigation and hearings to get to the bottom of this.”
Schumer’s demands were echoed by outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who charged that FBI Director James Comey was aware of the intelligence about Russia’s aims before the election and deliberately kept it private. Reid called on Comey to resign.
“Of course. Yes,” he said when asked whether the FBI director should go. “He won’t. He has his term there. And I’m sure the new administration, they should like him, he helped them get elected,” Reid said to Joy Reid on MSNBC.
Democrats immediately embraced the conclusions of the secret CIA report, which asserted that the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails – and their release to WikiLeaks – was the work of Russian operatives with ties to the government of President Vladimir Putin, all intended to help elect Trump.
Key Republicans did not automatically accept that conclusion, despite many of them believing that Russia was behind the DNC hacks and other election interference. For Republicans, giving credence to the CIA assessment would likely cause them to anger Trump even before the president-elect has been inaugurated.
Party leaders began deflecting that sort of intelligence well before the election. According to officials present during a September CIA briefing for congressional leaders, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., expressed doubts about the intelligence tying the Russian hacks to Trump.
McConnell himself did not comment after the news report surfaced, but his spokesman, David Popp, called the allegations “disturbing.”
“I do not have any readout of what did or didn’t happen in a classified briefing,” Popp said. “But obviously any foreign breach of our cybersecurity measures is disturbing, and the White House has just announced an investigation to see if that has occurred and will formulate a response.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said he could not be certain of the CIA’s claims given its track record, echoing Trump’s reaction to the report in which he said: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
“I’d have to have a briefing before I could judge it and who’s doing it,” McCain said in an interview late Friday night, once the Post’s report was published. “But the CIA has not always been exactly right to say the least.”
The CIA’s conclusions that Russia hacked the election to aid Trump has put Republicans in a political bind. On the one hand, the charges of election hacking are a perfect, galvanizing platform from which to go after Russia for what they see as global pattern of dangerous meddling, not just in the American elections, but also in the wars in Ukraine and Syria. But on the other hand, they now risk unearthing more evidence giving credence to the charges that Trump’s campaign benefited from the hacks. Such evidence could seriously undermine the president-elect before he takes office and beyond.
Other Republican senators also expressed doubts about the CIA’s charge.
“I’d be very concerned if a foreign government were doing that – we don’t have any evidence of that yet, and I haven’t seen the CIA report, so I’ll reserve judgment,” Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., said late Friday night.
And still others are questioning why anyone is talking about Russian hacking at all. “All this ‘news’ of Russian hacking: it has been going on for years,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, tweeted Saturday morning. “Serious, but hardly news.”
Nonetheless, even before the latest report, McCain and other senior Republican senators were planning to launch a wide-ranging, coordinated probe into alleged Russian interference in the elections in the next Congress. Such an effort could run directly counter to Trump’s foreign policy plans, including a repeatedly stated desire to warm relations with Putin’s Russia.
McCain’s Senate Armed Services Committee intends to establish a dedicated subcommittee to probe cyberthreats that will hold hearings on the how the United States would respond to an attack, as well as investigate allegations of election hacking.
“Everybody that I know, unclassified, has said that the Russians interfered in this election. They hacked into my campaign in 2008, is it a surprise to anyone?” McCain said. “Every expert I respect said the Russians engaged in that campaign.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has said, “I’m going after Russia in every way you can go after Russia. . . . I think they did interfere with our elections, and I want Putin personally to pay the price.”
He intends to spearhead legislation and hold a series of investigative hearings next year into “Russia’s misadventures throughout the world,” including its intervention in the elections.
“Clearly a lot of the information was selectively leaked,”Graham said. “Rather than try to tank the election in terms of an outcome, I want to go after the country that dared to interfere.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who had been a candidate for Trump’s secretary of state before the transition team reportedly moved toward ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, said early Saturday that “we’re going to do the work that we need to do to understand what’s happened.”
He noted that other senators, particularly those on the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, had approached him on the Senate floor during the last roll call votes of the session to “share their concerns” about the issue of Russian hacking.
“They can tell it’s warranted and that I should, like other committees are doing, pay a lot of attention to the issue,” Corker said.
But the Tennessee Republican declined to comment directly about hacks potentially favoring Trump.
Trump is relying on Republican doubts to avoid speculation that his win was directly aided by Moscow as he continues to assemble his Cabinet.
In a recent interview for Time, Trump said he doesn’t believe Russia interfered in the election, reasoning: “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.” He called the steady stream of allegations tying Russian hacking to his campaign “not a talking point, a laughing point.”
“Why not get along with Russia? And they can help us fight ISIS . . . and they’re effective and smart,” Trump also said during that interview.
Such statements could cause Senate Republicans to take a second look at Trump’s nominees. Senate Democrats cannot filibuster Trump’s Cabinet picks, but they are now likely to face more questioning about any ties to Russia.
Tillerson, who has been decorated with Russia’s Order of Friendship, is causing special concern.
“Let’s put it this way: If you received an award from the Kremlin, order of friendship, then we’re gonna have some talkin.’ We’ll have some questions,” Graham said. “I don’t want to prejudge the guy but that’s a bit unnerving.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Karoun Demirjian