The Post’s blockbuster story on Friday reported:
The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, according to officials briefed on the matter.
Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances.
Trump on Friday released a particularly tone-deaf statement, which will only feed suspicions about his affection for Vladimir Putin. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” it read. “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’ ” That he would adopt the Kremlin’s position in the face of overwhelming evidence, supported by U.S. intelligence professionals, is in and of itself of grave concern.
Former CIA director Michael Hayden, as reported on CNN, expressed astonishment. “To have the president-elect of the United States simply reject the fact-based narrative that the intelligence community puts together because it conflicts with his a priori assumptions. Wow,” he said. “He continues to reject the Russians did it … and claims that it was politicized intelligence.”
Following the president’s announcement on Friday that he ordered a “full review” of Russian hacking, the incoming Minority Leader Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for a full congressional review. Schumer is right that the bombshell should shake both parties to the core. But Republicans now must decide where their highest loyalties rest — with Trump or with the defense of the country and our electoral system.
The Post’s report provided an astonishing revelation: Republicans allegedly refused during the election to make a bipartisan defense of the sanctity of our electoral system. “According to several officials, [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] 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.” The report continued: “Some of the Republicans in the briefing also seemed opposed to the idea of going public with such explosive allegations in the final stages of an election, a move that they argued would only rattle public confidence and play into Moscow’s hands.”
Some Republicans in their narrow, partisan prism might think this about trying to invalidate the election. It’s not. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told Right Turn, “The purpose of any investigation, whether by the Obama administration or Congress, is not to question or relitigate the results of any past or present presidential election.” She explained, “Instead, any review must focus on the long-overdue task of improving the defenses of the United States against cyberattacks, including those that might seek to affect or influence political campaigns.”
It’s also about determining the degree to which Russia tried to pick our president, why Russia picked Trump and whether Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was correct in declaring there had been extensive conversations with the Trump campaign, a charge the Trump team immediately rejected.
This sounds like an over-the-top spy thriller. Unfortunately, this is all too real and raises numerous troubling questions:
- Why did Russia want Trump to win?
- Why does Trump disagree with our intelligence community? Who is telling him its conclusion is wrong?
- Does the hacking have anything to do with the coterie of pro-Putin advisers around Trump? With Trump’s efforts to undermine NATO? With his desire to “get along” with Putin?
- Has Trump reportedly chosen Rex Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon (who has no national security experience), for secretary of state because Tillerson is cozy with Putin and opposed sanctions?
- What conversations, if any, went on between Trump’s campaign and Russians, and what was the substance of those?
- Does Trump have financial interests (or liabilities) with Russian oligarchs — which he is concealing by refusing to release his tax returns?
- Why did Republicans before the election refuse to stand up for the integrity of our electoral system?
Trump and his advisers would be well advised to let the investigations run their course without heckling, criticism or interference. Trump would also be smart to be entirely transparent about financial, political or personal ties he or his advisers may have with Russia. If he does not, speculation will run rampant that he has something to hide.
“Russia’s efforts to interfere in the U.S. elections are unprecedented in American history,” Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told Right Turn. “Never before has technology allowed such widespread, semi-clandestine, and semi-deniable effects.” He added, “Whether one thinks they swayed the outcome or not, whether Vladimir Putin thinks we try to do the same thing to influence elections in pro-democratic ways in countries like Ukraine or not, all Americans should be alarmed. And that puts it mildly.”
The Senate must fly-speck Trump’s nominees, determine what their views on Russia are (and the basis for them) and get a clear understanding of what they will do in office to respond to Russia’s attempt to interfere with our electoral system. Any underqualified or unqualified nominee who appears unwilling to see Russia for what it is — an aggressive kleptocracy — should not be confirmed.
Tillerson’s expected nomination did not sit well with the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In a memo sent to reporters by the staff of Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) Trump’s response was bashed as “a cavalier dismissal that comes nowhere near the gravity of what’s been reported.” The memo slammed Trump for “reportedly planning to nominate a Secretary of State with business ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin and whose company worked to bury and deny climate science for years.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on CNN he had “concerns” about Tillerson’s relationship with Putin, and if his concerns were not satisfied he would oppose the nomination. That we are even facing the potential that a secretary of state would be inappropriately sympathetic toward a foe of the United States reaffirms how extraordinary the situation is in which we find ourselves.
GOP lawmakers need to act without a trace of partisanship and with alacrity and seriousness to get to the bottom of this — for it was their leaders reportedly who prevented a strong bipartisan show of strength in the face of replete evidence of Russian mischief. They should follow the example set by Collins, who told me, “a bipartisan congressional investigation could be useful towards achieving an objective accounting of any alleged meddling by foreign adversaries. The nefarious cyber-activity emanating from both Russia and China that has been well known for years has become increasingly brazen and aggressive.”
If Republicans appear to be dragging their feet, afraid that their election behavior will come back to bite them, the only recourse would be an independent prosecutor and/or an independent commission (some Democrats have already suggested this). A Senate Democratic source noted that for now it will be up to Republicans to call formal hearings and expressed confidence that investigative staff on the relevant committees can do a lot of digging on their own. The source noted, however, that access to information will be the key, which is why Democrats have been calling for declassification of relevant material.
Finally, the Russia connection makes it imperative for bipartisan consensus on two points: full release of Trump’s tax records and full divestiture of his holdings. “Frankly, we don’t know if and to what extent he has business ties to Russia. He continues to refuse to release that information,” Jordan Libowitz, the communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told me. “This is yet another reason why disclosure and divestment are so critical, so that any business ties with Russia will be known and removed.” Is Trump profiting, or has he profited, from Russian oligarchs? Conversely, is he literally in debt to them? Congress must demand Trump immediately sever all ties to his companies and liquidate his holdings so the proceeds can go into a truly blind trust operated by a neutral party.
Trump’s entire approach to Russia is certainly of concern. “Trying to get along with Russia is fine; I had some sympathy for Trump’s views on this matter during the campaign,” O’Hanlon remarked. “But his willingness to turn over a new leaf must not be done out of naivete — and if it is, a backlash is likely, once his bromance with Putin ends and he winds up bitter and betrayed, as would be the likely outcome of his team [being] too chummy with a guy who clearly can’t and shouldn’t be trusted.”
It’s time for Republicans to live up to their oaths of office and for once put partisan hackery aside. If they cannot defend the country in the case of a suspected act of espionage launched against our democratic elections, they should resign forthwith.
UPDATE: In a blistering statement Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) wrote that Tillerson’s nomination was “alarming and absurd.” He declared, “With Rex Tillerson as our Secretary of State, the Trump administration would be guaranteeing Russia has a willing accomplice in the President’s Cabinet guiding our nation’s foreign policy. The term conflict of interest doesn’t even begin to describe the web of dubious business interests and bank accounts that Tillerson and his company Exxon shares with Vladimir Putin and Russian oil companies. Having no practical experience in diplomacy, Mr. Tillerson has no proven knowledge or regard for the norms and necessities that so much of our modern diplomatic and security efforts depend upon.” It’s fair to say he will be a “no” on the confirmation vote: “As a member of the Senate committee tasked with vetting our next Secretary of State, I will do everything at my disposal to ensure our nation’s next diplomat-in-chief is someone who has the experience, insights and capabilities to truly protect America’s best interests and preserve our essential alliances across the globe.”
UPDATE II: Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a rising GOP star, was measured in his response. An adviser explained that while he was “encouraged by the seriousness’ with which Trump made most of his Cabinet picks, ” His concerns remain about the affinity for Putin and Russia and he has been outspoken about those concerns. Congressman Kinzinger anticipates learning more in uncovering the entirety of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, and the breach of our intelligence community.” The adviser added, “As he has said, Russia is not our ally, and Putin cannot be trusted. To think otherwise is severely misguided.”