On Monday, Senate and House Republican leadership stepped up to the plate on the Russian hacking of Democrats during the election. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), who last week avoided committing to a congressional inquiry, announced he favored a congressional inquiry, as did Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (Ky.). Both, however, rejected calls for a select committee.
Ryan on Monday declared: “We must condemn and push back forcefully against any state-sponsored cyberattacks on our democratic process. Throughout this Congress, Chairman Nunes and the Intelligence Committee have been working diligently on the cyber threats posed by foreign governments and terrorist organizations to the security and institutions of the United States. This important work will continue and has my support.” That sounded a bit defensive, as if trying not to concede that Congress had been asleep at the watch but also reaffirming it was not going to let this pass. Ryan stressed that “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.” Then with a nod to President-elect Donald Trump, he seemed to suggest that somehow Democrats were “exploiting the work of our intelligence community for partisan purposes” and that nothing should “cast doubt on the clear and decisive outcome of this election.” Has anyone been doing the latter, really? Trump seems to think investigating Russian espionage is meant as an assault on his victory; Ryan in essence says the two are separate.
McConnell, who had been accused of refusing to step forward with evidence during the campaign that Russia was trying to help Trump, said:
Obviously, any foreign breach of our cybersecurity measures is disturbing. And I strongly condemn any such efforts. Prior to the election, the director of national intelligence released a statement saying that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations.
That is what the intelligence community believes can be said in unclassified remarks without risking sources and methods. Anything else — anything else is irresponsible, likely illegal, and potentially for partisan political gain. I agree with Senator Schumer, Chairmen McCain, Burr and others, this simply cannot be a partisan issue.
He sidestepped the question of whether he had objected to stepping forward in a bipartisan way to point the finger at Russia for preferring Trump. Moreover, he seemed intent on keeping the Senate Intelligence Committee, which often operates behind closed doors, rather than a more public select committee. He insisted the Intelligence Committee could handle this and that the Senate Armed Services Committee would also be conducting a review. On the Russia front more generally, he sounded hawkish, implicitly rejecting Trump’s plea that we should all get along:
The Russians are not our friends. Invaded Crimea, Senator McCain and I and some of our Democratic friends met with the delegation from the Baltic countries just this past week to say that they’re nervous about the Russians, to put it mildly.
Let me also say, as I said last year, NATO is important. We intend to keep the commitments that are made in the NATO agreement, which I think by any objectives (inaudible) probably been one of the most if not the most successful military alliance in world history and I think we ought to approach all of these issues on the assumption that the Russians do not wish us well.
He declined to comment on the potential nomination for Russia-friendly Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.
Where does this leave us? On one hand, both GOP leaders refused to ignore the Russian hacking or show in any way they differed with the intelligence committee findings. They maintained a tough tone on Russia. Nevertheless, if keeping the investigations in the intelligence committees, rather than setting up a select committee, is intended to keep partisan control of the process and thereby limit Democratic inquiries, requests for documents, etc., it will be viewed as a political whitewash. If Congress does not make its findings known to the public in prompt fashion, Democrats will rightly claim a cover-up is underway.
The probe takes on new urgency with Trump’s announcement via Twitter that he will not relinquish his business holdings. Coupled with his refusal to put out his taxes the very real possibility remains that business dealings between Trump and the Russians are at the bottom of their mutual admiration society.
In essence, Republicans did not bury or deny the report (nor did McConnell deny he objected to disclosure of the finding that Russia was acting to benefit Trump), but nor did they give up political control over the inquest. Republicans would say they are respecting “regular order”; Democrats will say they are trying to keep the profile as low as possible.
Moreover, as the Wall Street Journal reported, “[The House] intelligence panel’s Republican chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, has said there was no need for further investigations, though he wrote intelligence officials on Monday to demand they brief his committee on the shifting assessments of the cyberhacking, citing recent news reports. Mr. Nunes, who is also an adviser to the Trump transition team, had previously said he has seen no evidence that the hacks were meant to help Mr. Trump win the election, a position directly at odds with ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who has said they plainly were.” This seems to be an egregious conflict of interest, raising the question whether Republicans are going to run interference for Trump or conduct a thorough examination.
The proof will be in the conduct and findings of the committees and in how rigorously Congress confronts Trump financial conflicts of interest and lack of transparency. If the Trump team was surprised by the early blowback o Tillerson or the bipartisan reaction on the Russian hacking story, maybe it needs to pay closer attention to bipartisan and public distrust of Russia. Unless he wants to get on the wrong side of both and be seen as doing the Kremlin’s bidding, Trump would be smart to cooperate with investigations of Russian espionage and to come clean on his financial ties to Russia.