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Opinion Top Republicans respond to Russia news with ludicrous and dangerous spin

(Reuters/Dmitri Lovetsky)


The New York Times reports today that CIA analysts based their explosive conclusion that Russia tried to swing the election to Donald Trump on “overwhelming circumstantial evidence.” This leak appears to be the CIA’s response to Trump’s efforts to cast doubt on its investigative efforts. After the Post reported that the CIA had concluded that Russia tried to help Trump win, Trump denounced this as “ridiculous,” adding: “I don’t believe it.”

Other top Republicans, such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, have responded by casting doubt on the report, too, albeit in a more restrained fashion. And that by itself is not necessarily objectionable. Skepticism is not an unreasonable response to anonymous leaks about alleged CIA conclusions.

But shouldn’t this uncertainty lead Republicans to actively want a full congressional investigation designed to settle whether Russia did try to swing our election to Trump?

Moscow rules?

Instead, the response from Ryan — and, reportedly, from McConnell, too — to calls for a probe has been utterly ludicrous, and even dangerous, given the long term stakes involved for our democracy. In a statement, Ryan’s office stopped short of saying whether he will support an investigation:

Speaker Ryan has said for months that foreign intervention in our elections is unacceptable . . . The speaker can not comment on or characterize the content of classified briefings but he rejects any politicization of intelligence matters.

In other words, Ryan may have been briefed on precisely what has been reported about the CIA’s conclusion, and of course any Russian interference would be intolerable. But Ryan nonetheless won’t lend support to a congressional investigation into whether it actually happened. For Ryan, the real problem here is apparently the publicizing of this conclusion — which he describes as “politicization.” Politico pressed Ryan’s office for further clarification, and reported: “Ryan’s office would not say whether he believes House committees, including oversight and intelligence panels, should investigate the matter.”

President-elect Donald Trump, Democrats and Republicans react to the CIA’s assessment that Russia intervened to help Trump win the election. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, the Post reported that in September, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other senators received a private briefing on the intelligence pointing to the conclusion that Russia tried to help Trump win. Administration officials asked for a united, bipartisan front, but McConnell refused:

The Democratic leaders in the room unanimously agreed on the need to take the threat seriously. Republicans, however, were divided, with at least two GOP lawmakers reluctant to accede to the White House requests. According to several officials, McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.

McConnell has not commented on this report, and it’s unclear if he supports any congressional probe. And incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus argued to NBC News that there is no “conclusive” proof that Russia tried to swing the election to Trump, but hedged on whether Trump wants to see an investigation (the wording is garbled, but to my knowledge, he has not since clarified), even as he also insisted Trump wants to get to the bottom of what happened.

If basic logic has any place in our discourse anymore, it should be obvious that this position is untenable. These Republicans all suggest we should not be getting ahead of what is conclusively known about Russia’s efforts to interfere in our election. Again, that’s not necessarily objectionable. But given this, establishing to the best of our abilities what actually did take place should be the first thing they want to see happen.

Let’s get the facts right on foreign involvement in our elections

Other Republicans, such as Lindsey Graham and John McCain, have called for the facts to be established via a congressional investigation. Whatever role their hawkishness toward Russia is playing, they also crucially point out that a probe is the way to protect our democracy from future interference. As they note, potential interference may have “cut to the heart of our free society,” making it incumbent on Congress “to examine these recent incidents thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyber-attacks.” Or, as former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul put it, only a comprehensive congressional investigation can assess what really happened, which is critical to our ability to “make important policy changes before the 2020 elections.”

Ryan and McConnell won’t say whether they agree with this call for protecting our democracy. Perhaps they don’t want Americans to find out that Russia actually did try to swing the election to Trump, because that could undermine the legitimacy of the election’s outcome in the eyes of the public and diminish impressions of support for Trump, possibly making it harder to move the congressional GOP’s agenda. (I’m not claiming this should undermine perceptions of the outcome’s legitimacy — even if it did happen, it almost certainly wasn’t decisive — but merely that it might do this.)

It’s important to see all of this in its larger context. Trump has spent months sowing public confusion designed to weaken confidence in our institutions. Even after winning the electoral college, he falsely claimed that he actually won the popular vote when you factor in the millions who voted illegally, probably to lay the groundwork for a major wave of voter suppression and to exaggerate impressions of his popular support. Trump thrives on disinformation, uncertainty, and the erosion of the mere possibility of agreement on shared facts. And senior Republicans are actively helping him foment these things. Given the chance, Ryan and Priebus recently refused to clarify that, no, thousands did not vote illegally.

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Trump seems to want that same fog of uncertainty to obscure whether Russia interfered in our elections — “nobody really knows,” he says of the CIA’s conclusion — even if failing to get to the bottom of what happened could weaken public confidence in our system and possibly even put our democracy at risk in future elections. Thus far, senior Republicans appear willing to help him spread that fog once again.


* CONSERVATIVES DEMAND QUICK OBAMACARE REPEAL: The Post reports that conservatives in Congress are pushing GOP leaders to repeal the ACA quickly, with no delay to cushion the fallout and make time for a replacement. But here’s the problem:

Part of the problem is that Republicans have never been able to agree on a replacement plan, despite railing against Obamacare for nearly eight years now. Their foot-dragging is a function of internal divisions and the political peril of floating a detailed alternative that would be closely evaluated for costs and benefits.

Yes, it turns out making health policy is hard and subjects your efforts to empirical evaluation. Fortunately, Trump has vowed to replace the ACA with “something terrific,” so no worries.

* CRITICS WORRY ABOUT TRUMP’S DEPUTY NSA PICK: Politico reports that former National Security Agency officials don’t think K.T. McFarland is qualified for the job of deputy national security adviser. Note her Fox News qualifications:

McFarland, 65, last worked in government three decades ago . . . She has since become a regular commentator on Fox News, which people who know McFarland said was her springboard onto Trump’s team. They insist she is a policy lightweight with no real personnel or crisis management experience…And their concern is heightened by Trump’s own unfamiliarity with foreign policy, as well as questions about Flynn’s suitability for the top NSC job.

The “Flynn” in question is Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice as national security adviser, who once said Arabic signs near the southern border guide terrorists into the U.S. Feel reassured yet?

* TRUMP’S LAWYER HAS WORK CUT OUT FOR HIM: The New York Times explains how Donald McGhan II, Trump’s pick for White House counsel, will likely be working to give him as much free rein as possible in crucial areas:

One key question…is how strongly he will push back if Mr. Trump, a man who has defied many norms, seeks to cross into murky legal terrain…He may be called on to defend Mr. Trump’s stances on issues like his business empire, his children’s role in his administration…his vow to bring back waterboarding or his threat to impose tariffs on companies moving abroad.

Something tells us there will be far less “pushing back” than there will be creative legal justifications for everything Trump wants to do.

* DREAMERS WARNED AGAINST LEAVING COUNTRY: The Associated Press reports that immigration advocates are warning the dreamers not to leave United States, because the executive action protecting them from deportation could be rescinded by Trump:

That could lead, they fear, to some people traveling abroad being barred from re-entering the U.S . . . Nancy Lopez-Ramirez, a 20-year-old student born in Mexico who is planning a trip there as part of a City College of New York class, said she is glad the group is returning by Jan. 15. “My mom is like ‘I am concerned with you not coming back, I want you to be able to come back,'” she said.

As I’ve noted, if Trump does go through with this, it could cause major disruptions for hundreds of thousands of people. Soon he will have to reveal his actual intentions.

* STAY ON HIGH ALERT ABOUT TRUMP’S RADICAL AGENDA: Paul Krugman argues that many in the media will pretend everything is normal about Trump’s electoral victory and administration, and urges remaining vigilant:

It’s clear that Mr. Trump — whose personal conflicts of interest are unprecedented, and quite possibly unconstitutional — intends to move U.S. policy radically away from the preferences of most Americans . . . In other words, nothing that happened on Election Day or is happening now is normal. Democratic norms have been and continue to be violated, and anyone who refuses to acknowledge this reality is, in effect, complicit in the degradation of our republic.

The slippage into normalization on the part of many in the news media will be only one of many deeply depressing dynamics about the coming years that must be resisted.

* A GOOD QUESTION ABOUT TRUMP AND RUSSIA: E.J. Dionne has a nice column explaining why the stakes are very high for the country in multiple ways in determining whether Russia did help sway the election. Note this:

Is it out of line to wonder, given Trump’s lack of transparency about his finances, what role Russia has played in his business empire?

It’s another way in which Trump’s lack of transparency about his finances makes it impossible to gauge what he’s really up to. If only congressional Republicans would take steps to change this.

* AND TRUMP SAYS ‘NOBODY REALLY KNOWS’ ABOUT CLIMATE: Here’s Trump, on Fox News Sunday, talking about climate change and the Paris accord:

“I’m still open-minded.  Nobody really knows . . . Now, Paris, I’m studying. I do say this — I don’t want that agreement to put us at a competitive disadvantage with other countries.”

Our best hope is that Trump concludes pulling out of the Paris deal isn’t worth the diplomatic headache. (I originally misrepresented the quote; I’ve fixed it.)