For now many Republicans, who would be enraged if a Democrat sided with an enemy of the United States, are declining to criticize directly President-elect Donald Trump’s pro-Russian propaganda, including his complimentary citation to WikiLeaks and Vladimir Putin collaborator Julian Assange. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), fresh from the House’s embarrassing retreat on its attempt to gut the ethics office, said he wasn’t going to respond to every tweet from Trump, although he did concede that Assange is a “sycophant for Russia.” (What does that make Trump?) Even worse, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) did back-flips trying not to utter an unfavorable word about Trump. There was this awkward exchange on “Morning Joe“:
WILLIE GEIST: How do you feel Donald Trump has handled this allegation of Russian hacking?
COTTON: Well, I think it’s reasonable for us to wait to see what comes out in the report in the next couple of days. President Obama ordered that report last month, and the intelligence agencies have been working very diligently to complete it. They will report to President Obama and then Donald Trump and then the intelligence committees on Capitol Hill, and then we can examine their conclusions. I don’t see much need to jump to conclusions before that, though, until we see what their conclusions are in the intelligence committees and the sources and methods they used to gather the evidence to support those conclusions.
WILLIE GEIST: Do you think it’s dangerous at all for Donald Trump to be attacking the intelligence community before he knows what they are going to say?
COTTON: I have a lot more faith in our intelligence officers serving around the world and the very smart and experienced analysts that we have here in the nation’s capital than I do in people like Julian Assange, I can tell you that much. Look, I don’t dispute the intelligence community’s assessment from October 7th that Russia or Russian associates were behind the attack on the DNC. I simply think that is to be expected from Russia, that is what they do. And one reason they felt emboldened that they could do that for the last eight years is because Barack Obama has not just been weak on Russia, but he has even tried to stop people like me and other members of Congress from drawing a firmer line on them. That’s what we need to do with Russia: we need to draw a firmer line, we need to impose costs when they step over the line doing things like hacking into the DNC.
MIKE BARNICLE: Well, but Senator, does it concern you at all that the president-elect of the United States of America, to be president in 17 days, 16 days, continually and has continuously demeaned the intelligence gathering and the people who do this dangerous work around the world, does it concern you at all?
COTTON: Well, I think intelligence officers are like military personnel. They just don’t work in public. They don’t wear uniforms when they go through airports. And therefore, they don’t get as much of the credit, respect, and honor that they deserve. I would encourage the president-elect to listen with an open mind, but also with a probing mind. It’s right to probe our intelligence agencies as civilian elected leaders of our government. But, also there are real questions, too, about why there have been so many leaks over the last seven or eight weeks from the administration about the motivations or the intentions of Vladimir Putin or other foreign leaders. …
Cotton, of course, has already boxed himself in by supporting Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, another abdication of his independent judgment.
The name of the game seems to be to avoid at all costs expressing concern that the president-elect is so invested in his Russia spinning that he would side with Putin and Assange against our unified intelligence services. How can they call Assange a tool of Russia without conceding that Trump, who echoes the exact same line, is as well? They’re in a logical cul-de-sac of their own making so long as they ignore the frightening reality: Our next president sides with Putin against our own intelligence community.
Not all Republicans are going down this road, of course. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a new addition to the Senate Armed Services Committee (which begins its hearing on Russia tomorrow), has called for tough sanctions, refused to play the “we don’t know yet who did it” game and today rebuked Trump’s Assange love-fest via an email to Right Turn: “Assange is no friend of the American people and Wikileaks has published our national security secrets to the benefit of Russia and China.” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) called for an independent investigation, and they continue to deplore attacks on our intelligence services and demand stern measures against Russian interference in our democratic elections.
Democrats are understandably irate about Trump’s Putin advocacy and Republicans’ refusal to disassociate themselves from Trump’s rhetoric. The Democratic National Committee put out a statement today, which read in part: “It’s nothing short of terrifying that Trump has chosen to take the word of an enemy of our country over the word of 17 United States intelligence agencies including the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA. Trump is jeopardizing America’s future with his fear of offending Vladimir Putin.”
Republicans who fall in line with Trump are putting themselves at odds with voters, even Trump voters. Hart Research Associates conducted a poll in late December for the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund “among 1,206 voters across 14 key battleground states in which Democrats will be defending U.S. Senate seats in 2018.” Its findings included this:
Voters in the 2018 Senate battleground believe that Russia under Putin represents a significant danger to the United States. and our national interests. Fully 65% say that “Russia under Vladimir Putin poses a significant danger to America’s national security and interests in the world,” while just 27% say it does not. Democratic voters (80%) are the most likely to see Putin’s Russia as a danger to the United States, but majorities of both Republicans (by 56% to 36%) and independents (52% to 38%) do so as well.
A majority of voters in the battleground states believe that it is important for Congress to conduct an independent investigation into Russia’s efforts to interfere with the U.S. elections by hacking into e-mails and computer systems. Across the 14 states, 54% say it is very or fairly important to have such an investigation, 18% say it is just somewhat important to do so, and only 27% say it is not that important or not important at all to have an independent investigation into Russia’s actions during our election. Three in 10 Trump voters say it is very or fairly important for Congress to convene an independent investigation, joining 82% of Clinton voters and 51% of Johnson/Stein voters. Among Trump voters, those who want Democrats to serve as an independent check and balance on the incoming president are more likely than average to believe that it is important for Congress to independently investigate Russian interference.
Pollster Geoff Garin in a press call expressed amazement that Trump and some Republicans would get themselves “crosswise with voters, including those in the reddest states” on this issue. Indeed, for Trump especially, who ran on a platform of putting “America First,” he and his Republican defenders run the risk of alienating their own strong national security voters and ceding the issue to Democrats. (We’ll have more tomorrow on other warning signs for Democrats.) Their partisan loyalty and fear of Trump’s wrath have gotten the better of them, at least for now.
UPDATE: Former CIA director Michael Hayden is gravely concerned about Trump’s tweet. “It really does remind me of trash talk, the way it is used by an athlete or a businessman to intimidate an opponent pre-match or deal. We have seen the president-elect use this routinely during the campaign,” he tells me. “Quite a fascinating approach to your own intelligence community. I know of no other historical example, at least on this scale. It may be that he cannot help himself, that this is the only technique he knows. It will be interesting to see if they allow themselves to be intimidated.” Republicans seem pretty cowed, but maybe intelligence officials are made of sterner stuff.