President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team have unnerved lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Both Democrats and Republicans appearing on the Sunday shows made clear that the transition team’s continued efforts to deny Russia’s attempt to interfere with our election, to excuse Vladimir Putin’s behavior or to demonstrate reluctance to act in America’s interests against Russian aggression will lead Trump into hot water with Congress. Trump is already undermining his own standing as the incoming commander in chief. (Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, wryly observed on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “There’s no one who is more undermining the legitimacy of the Trump presidency than Donald Trump himself.”)
Appearing on “Meet the Press” along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) made clear the bottom line for him: “Putin’s not the reason that [Hillary] Clinton lost and Trump won. I don’t think anybody’s saying that. So Mr. President-elect, that’s not what we’re trying to do. What we’re trying to do is find out what the Russians did in our elections and make sure that other people, including the Russians, won’t do it next time.” He cautioned the president-elect: “In a couple weeks, Donald Trump will be the defender of the free world and democracy. You should let everybody know in America, Republicans and Democrats, that you’re going to make Russia pay a price for trying to interfere. Even though it didn’t affect the outcome, they tried to interfere. And they need to pay a price. And I don’t care what their motives were.” He was rather blunt about the Trump’s team’s reticence to acknowledge what occurred in the election: “Let me say this: If after having been briefed by our intelligence leaders, Donald Trump is still unsure as to what the Russians did, that would be incredibly unnerving to me because the evidence is overwhelming. All I’m asking him is to acknowledge that Russia interfered, and push back.”
The unspoken question hanging over this bizarre situation (in which both parties agree that Russia has sought to undermine American democracy while the president-elect echoes Russian propaganda) is this: Is Trump’s denial simply his egotistical insistence that he got no “help” winning, or is this part of a larger, much more serious issue in which the next president will side reflexively with Russia against U.S. interests? (Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns causes some to suspect the latter.) Whatever the reason, the situation is becoming more dire as we approach Inauguration Day.
Appearing on CNN, Michèle Flournoy, who served in the Obama administration, counseled Trump: “Putin is pursuing a policy in Europe, in Syria and elsewhere that is not aligned with ours. And I think when he gets into the Oval Office, he will find that there are many people in the national security enterprise, including someone like Gen. [James] Mattis, who came out of a military background, I think most of the chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, the service chiefs, the COCOMs, have all testified that they see Russia as a very real and present threat because of the actual actions they have taken, the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of Ukraine, the positioning of nuclear weapons, the increasing competition in the maritime domain, the space domain, and as we have seen in the cyber- domain with an unprecedented attack on the U.S. democratic process.” The question is whether Trump will resist the consensus of advisers, Congress, the intelligence community and outside experts.
Trump’s surrogates are not making it any easier. Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, went around and around trying his best to avoid saying that Russia hacked the Democrats. He tried to insist that others were using this to discredit Trump or that the whole thing was the Democrats’ fault. “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson sounded incredulous as Priebus did a fine impression of a RT paid announcer for the Kremlin when he tried to insist that Trump never disparaged the intelligence community:
DICKERSON: Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman, it’s disparagement when you compare the findings of the intelligence agencies to their worst blunder in modern history. When you compare it to–
PRIEBUS: There was no–
DICKERSON: When you–
PRIEBUS: Hang on, John. There was no– [CROSSTALK]
PRIEBUS: You’re wrong. There was no–
DICKERSON: Mr. Chairman, did you not–
PRIEBUS: There was no–
DICKERSON: –compare them to the Iraq War? Did the Trump transition compare them to the Iraq War blunder?
PRIEBUS: I didn’t compare them to the Iraq–
DICKERSON: The transition did.
PRIEBUS: –War blunder. But we’re not talking about that, John. We’re talking about–
DICKERSON: Mr. Chairman.
PRIEBUS: –what created–
DICKERSON: But you did do that.
PRIEBUS: What created—the tweet–
DICKERSON: But the transition did do that.
PRIEBUS: You can—you can say that all day long. But we’re talking about–
DICKERSON: But that’s because it’s the truth, Mr. Chairman.
One wonders why such ridiculous evasion and misrepresentation are required.
Had Trump not gone out of his way to side with Putin on Russian cyberwarfare tactics, one might accept a benign explanation for Trump’s rhetoric. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made the reasonable point that lots of presidents come into office hoping to get along with the Russians. “My suspicion is these hopes will be dashed pretty quickly,” he said. “The Russians are clearly a big adversary, and they demonstrated it by trying to mess around in our election.” But that is precisely the problem: They’ve demonstrated it in a way as to convince the entire Congress, rational outside observers and the intelligence community, but not Trump.
McConnell also make the sound point that Trump’s advisers aren’t Russian apologists. “Gen. Mattis. Gen. [John] Kelly. Congressman [Mike] Pompeo. Sen. [Dan] Coats. None — none of these are people who are in any way conflicted about the view that the Russians are — are not our friends, and are a big problem.” Fair enough, but the president matters most.
The place to test whether Trump has a Russia problem — or rather, the United States has a problem because Trump is in Putin’s pocket — will be at the confirmation hearings. Each nominee for a national security post should be asked a series of questions to determine his views and those of the president-elect:
Is Russia our adversary?
Did Russia attempt to interfere with our election, as it has done with European elections?
Are sanctions an appropriate response? Do you support them? Does the president-elect?
Do you agree with the intelligence report on Russia? Does the president? Do you think there is any rational argument to doubt that report?
Do you think the intelligence community or the report are “political”?
Is our obligation of common defense to our NATO allies unqualified? Does the president-elect understand this?
Does Russia occupy two former Soviet states in contravention of international law? What do we do about it?
Defense Secretary Ash Carter says Russia has not helped at all in fighting the Islamic State. Is that correct? If so, why does the president-elect keep insisting that it has and that our interests in Syria are aligned?
Has Russia committed war crimes in Syria? How should we respond?
Is Russia an abuser of human rights? Have journalists and other opponents been killed? Do Putin and the oligarchs engage in widespread corruption? What, if anything, should we do about these things?
Is RT a Russian propaganda outlet? Is Mike Flynn correct that it is just like CNN?
Like tough TV news interviewers, senators at the confirmation hearings must persist, refusing to let nominees evade the questions or speak in generalities. If nominees refuse to acknowledge definitively the Russian threat and the need for a powerful response, they should be blocked. And if they cannot easily attest that the president understands the Russian threat and will respond to it, then Trump, the country and the free world have a big problem.