“There’s now an executive order that allows the president to administer sanctions as a result of cyber intrusions,” Schiff told reporters, noting that if Russia persists in breaching U.S. campaign groups, Obama ought “to look at a series of escalating responses, which might begin with economic sanctions.”
The issue of alleged Russian hacking of the American electoral system resurfaced on Wednesday night after House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said on CNN that he learned from intelligence briefings that the Republican National Committee had also been hacked. McCaul quickly walked back his comments, claiming he had misspoken and meant that Republican “political operatives” had been hacked instead.
Lawmakers who receive similar intelligence briefings were divided and cagey on Thursday about McCaul’s remarks.
“Hacking is rampant everywhere, so I can’t rule anything out, but I would not specifically target a group like he targeted,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.).
Schiff declined to comment on the veracity of McCaul’s remarks, saying he needed “to be sure what I’m allowed to say and not.”
Members of both parties are growing increasingly frustrated with President Obama for not directly censuring Russia over recent hacks, such as the country’s alleged intrusion into the DNC’s computer network. Obama has said that the Russians hack U.S. government systems has well as those of private American individuals.
Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Thursday she is working with Schiff on a statement responding to Russian hacking activities and how the U.S. government should respond. While the two have not discussed a push for sanctions, she said Thursday that “that is an option” she would not rule out.
“This isn’t just words,” when she was asked if the president should respond to the spate of recent hacks with more than just words. “This is a very big deal.”
Feinstein’s counterpart, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.) also said that it was time for the Obama administration to meet the hacking with “some type of response” that goes beyond the rhetorical.
“I don’t think the words have worked very well up to now,” Burr said, though he deferred any decision about implementing sanctions to the administration. “I think it’s time for the administration to do something vs. nothing.”
It’s an awkward moment for the Obama administration to start wading into the realm of sanctions talk. The administration still maintains sanctions targeting Russia’s energy, banking, and defense sectors over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine. Yet it has also recently entered a phase of new cooperation with Russia over the civil war in Syria, brokering a delicate ceasefire they hope will lead to peace talks to end the conflict.
Opening up a new front against Russia could risk throwing progress in diplomatic relations into disarray. But lawmakers say that is not a consideration in the face of Russia allegedly interfering in the U.S. electoral process.
“I can’t imagine something so fundamental to our country as the integrity of the electoral process,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who said he understand why “alarm bells are going off” among many lawmakers.
But Corker would not yet endorse the idea that the president should consider sanctions against Russia over hacking. He said Thursday that he hoped to pull together either a classified briefing or a hearing on the subject, possibly next week.
Others argued there was nothing to be gained by walking a delicate line with Russia – not in Syria, and not in the relationship at large.
Burr said it was “an assumption, and I think it’s a big one” that angering Russia with sanctions would affect the Syrian ceasefire, considering that accusations of violations are already flying and past milestones have failed to produce a durable peace process.
“The only thing that Putin respects is a strong response,” Schiff said. “Otherwise it just invites him to do more.”