The two most powerful Republicans in Congress on Monday broke with their party’s presidential nominee to endorse a bipartisan call to investigate Russia's intervention in the presidential election, apparently to directly benefit Donald Trump.
On Saturday, it was reported the Central Intelligence Agency told lawmakers in September that not only had the Kremlin hacked the Democratic and Republican national committees, but that it only released embarrassing information about Hillary Clinton’s campaign in order to help Trump become president. Trump and his transition team over the weekend dismissed the CIA's conclusion as partisan or even a conspiracy theory.
On Monday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell showed he did not agree.
“The Russians are not our friends… We ought to approach all of these issues on the assumption that the Russians do not wish us well,” McConnell said at a Monday morning press conference on Capitol Hill. “It defies belief that somehow Republicans in the Senate are reluctant to either review Russian hacking, or ignore them.”
By Monday afternoon, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, also said he favored investigating the Kremlin and the election.
“Any foreign intervention in our elections is entirely unacceptable. And any intervention by Russia is especially problematic because, under President Putin, Russia has been an aggressor that consistently undermines American interests,” he said, praising the work that the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee had done on the issue. “This important work will continue and has my support.”
Though he was clear to say the election’s results are settled.
“As we work to protect our democracy from foreign influence, we should not cast doubt on the clear and decisive outcome of this election,” Ryan said.
McConnell and Ryan’s statements represent a break with Trump, whose spokesman accused those backing a probe into Russian influence in the U.S. election as “bitter” over the results, and said that they were attempting to undercut Trump’s victory.
“I think really clearly this is an attempt to try to delegitimize President-elect Trump’s win, that really seems to be what’s going on here,” said spokesman Jason Miller on a daily conference call with reporters Monday morning after McConnell spoke.
This displeases the incoming Trump administration, with Miller saying that the Congressional probe into Russian hacking was an extension of recount efforts and is akin to suggestions that the country move away from the Electoral College towards electing a president by popular vote.
On Monday, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta endorsed a request from several members of the Electoral College to receive an intelligence briefing about Russia's role in the election.
“Where we are [as] an incoming administration is getting ready to serve the American people and hit the ground running,” Miller said. “That might upset some people who are bitter that their candidate lost in November but that’s not going to slow us down from focusing on going to work for the American people.”
McConnell is hardly a Democratic stooge on this issue. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that he had raised objections to the veracity of the CIA’s conclusion in a September briefing that Russia’s motive was to elect Trump. McConnell reportedly told the Obama administration he believed any attempt to publicly name and shame the Russians before the Election Day would be purely partisan.
Now though it is clearly bipartisan.
Republican Sen. John McCain and Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer appeared on CBS This Morning on Monday to jointly call for an investigation into Russian interference with the election.
“It’s gotta be bipartisan,” McCain said, hinting at an investigation that could take months to accomplish, working across several committees.
The Senate is already gearing up for multiples investigations in the new year, just as Trump takes office, on the issues of cybersecurity, Russian influence, and foreign hacking. McConnell said that the Senate Intelligence Committee would take the lead on the probe of Russian hacking, but that the Armed Services Committee would also play a role. The Obama administration is also launching a separate investigation into the matter to be finalized before he leaves office next month. McConnell expects that the public will also be given additional information on the hacks.
One point of tension is whether there should be a new committee to investigate the issue, as Democrats are calling for.
“We need this commission to determine if my personal belief is correct—that the real intent of what appears to be a classic Russian covert influence campaign was to harm the candidacy of the Democratic candidate or undermine our democratic system," Dianne Feinstein, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said in a statement. “This bipartisan commission will help identify the specific ‘actors’ responsible and recommend a possible course of action to prevent this from ever happening again.”
Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement it would be redundant.
"At this time I do not see any benefit in opening further investigations, which would duplicate current committee oversight efforts and Intelligence Community inquiries," he said.
And even as Trump resists a Congressional investigation, the president-elect is continuing to openly feud with the CIA, taking to Twitter to dismiss the findings of the intelligence agency he will soon be in charge of running. In fact, Trump is publicly questioning whether the CIA can even determine who is responsible for the hacking of U.S. political organizations during the election.
“Unless you catch ‘hackers’ in the act, it is very hard to determine who was doing the hacking. Why wasn’t this brought up before election?” Trump tweeted Monday morning. “Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!”
Trump’s view of the CIA is directly contrary to the feelings of most of his party, which has long revered the intelligence community. McConnell, who is the highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, dismissed such criticism.
“The CIA is filled with selfless patriots, many of whom anonymously risk their lives for the American people,” he said Monday morning. “I have the highest confidence in the intelligence community, especially the Central Intelligence Agency.”