Leading Senate Republicans are preparing to launch a coordinated and wide-ranging probe into Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. elections and its potential cyberthreats to the military, digging deep into what they view as corrosive interference in the nation’s institutions.
Such an aggressive approach puts them on a direct collision course with President-elect Donald Trump, who downplays the possibility Russia had any role in the November elections — arguing that a hack of the Democratic National Committee emails may have been perpetrated by “some guy in his home in New Jersey.” The fracture could become more prominent after Trump is inaugurated and begins setting foreign policy. He has already indicated that the country should “get along” with Russia since the two nations have many common strategic goals.
But some of Trump’s would-be Republican allies on Capitol Hill disagree. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (Ariz.) is readying a probe of possible Russian cyber-incursions into U.S. weapons systems, and he said he has been discussing the issue with Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (N.C.), with whom he will be “working closely” to investigate Russia’s suspected interference in the U.S. elections and cyberthreats to the military and other institutions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been apprised of the discussions. Burr did not respond to requests for comment.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) also said he intends to hold hearings next year into alleged Russian hacking. Corker is on Trump’s shortlist for secretary of state, according to the Trump transition team.
Trump transition officials could not be reached for comment.
The loudest GOP calls for a Russia probe are coming from McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Both have taken a hard line on Russia and have been highly critical of Trump, particularly his praise of President Vladimir Putin.
“They’ll keep doing more here until they pay a price,” Graham said of Russia. He plans to spearhead legislation and hold a series of investigative hearings next year into “Russia’s misadventures throughout the world,” including Russian meddling in the U.S. elections.
“I’m going after Russia in every way you can go after Russia. I think they’re one of the most destabilizing influences on the world stage. I think they did interfere with our elections, and I want Putin personally to pay the price,” Graham said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday.
McCain said his Armed Services Committee will launch a probe in the 115th Congress into Russia’s cyber-capabilities against the U.S. military and weapons systems, “because the real threat is cyber,” he explained.
But McCain said he expects the investigation will also dovetail with the topic of Russia’s suspected hacking of the DNC and state-based election systems — which include a hack that took place in McCain’s home state of Arizona.
“See, the problem with hacking is that if they’re able to disrupt elections, then it’s a national security issue, obviously,” McCain said Thursday.
He added that the Armed Services Committee was “still formulating” exactly how to address the issue during hearings. But despite Trump’s dismissal, McCain said that “there’s very little doubt” Russia interfered in the U.S. elections, which he called “very worthy of examination.”
The U.S. government in October officially accused Russia of hacking the DNC’s emails during the presidential campaign. The emails were posted on websites such as WikiLeaks and embarrassed the party, notably forcing Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) to resign as DNC chairwoman.
And U.S. military officials officials are concerned about Russia’s capacity to steal military secrets and corrupt operations: Officials already suspect that Russian hackers were behind a major email breach at the Pentagon last year. And the military could be a target for backlash, after an NBC News report widely circulated by Russian media said that U.S. military hackers were ready to launch cyberattacks against Russia in the event of an obvious election hack.
Trump continued to downplay Russian involvement in the elections in an interview released this week for Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” feature. In the interview, the president-elect disputed the Obama administration’s accusation that Russia interfered in the election.
“I don’t believe they interfered,” Trump said of Russia. “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey. I believe that it could have been Russia and it could have been any one of many other people. Sources or even individuals.”
Some Republicans delicately demurred, while still defending Trump’s ability to negotiate with Putin.
“The Democratic National Committee … the intelligence community is of pretty much one mind that Russia was involved in that, was behind that,” Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said in an MSNBC interview. King is a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence and counterterrorism.
King added that he was “confident” Trump “will not be taken in by Putin.”
Democrats have also taken issue with Trump’s desire to pursue more friendly relations with Moscow, as well as his affinity for Putin.
“The primary area of discomfort for the Republicans here and the Trump administration, in foreign policy and national security, is over Russia,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat. He accused Trump on MSNBC this week of becoming “a propaganda piece for the Kremlin,” adding: “They may be giving him breathing space right now, but I don’t expect that to last.”
Since the election, Republican lawmakers have voted to reestablish a U.S. hard line against Russia’s global ventures. The House has passed measure to sanction anyone who supports the Syrian government in its ongoing civil war, a category that primarily includes Russia and Iran. There is also language in the annual defense policy bill to provide millions of dollars in lethal aid to Ukraine, where the government in Kiev is engaged in open hostilities against Russian-backed separatists.
But many Democrats are impatient with Republicans for not taking faster and more concrete steps against Russia after the Obama administration officially accused Moscow of meddling in the elections.
Corker expressed early interest in holding hearings on Russia. But months later, those hearings have not been held. “We’re getting no pressure from anyone — we just feel like it’s something we should do,” Corker said in an interview Wednesday, when asked if the president-elect had pressured him not to raise the topic. “As a matter of fact, we attempted to set a classified briefing up this week.”
Obama administration officials maintain that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and other officials were ready to brief senators about Russia’s suspected role in the DNC hack on Thursday. Administration officials said that at the last minute, the committee dramatically broadened the scope of the hearing, forcing them to cancel.
A spokeswoman for Corker said the hearing was postponed because State Department officials were unavailable due to previous travel commitments. She added that Corker and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Democrat, received a classified briefing on cyberthreats prior to the election.
Corker pledged Wednesday that hearings investigating Russia’s role in the elections would be forthcoming next year. “We’re definitely going to look at it,” he said.
An aggressive probe of Russia’s activities may not extend to the House, where leading Republicans say they have already been investigating Russia and will continue their efforts regardless of Trump’s stance.
“[Russia]’s always been a priority for me, and it will remain a priority for me,” House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, stressed that his committee has been looking at Russian cyberthreats to the military for the last two years.
“We’re going to have to all pay more attention to cyber and to Russian activities to influence things through cyber,” Thornberry said.
Democrats, meanwhile, are going to use whatever power they have to ensure that suspected Russian activities in the elections and beyond get attention.
Seven top-ranked Democrats sent a letter to President Obama on Tuesday asking for classified briefings “regarding Russian entities’ hacking of American political organizations,” including the DNC hack, emails released by WikiLeaks and fake news.
“Regardless of whether you voted for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or anyone else, Russia’s attacks on our election are an attempt to degrade our democracy and should chill every American — Democratic, Republican, or Independent — to the core,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Relations Committee.