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McConnell announces Senate probe of suspected Russian election interference: ‘The Russians are not our friends’

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) slams Republican lawmakers who "are reluctant to either review Russian tactics or ignore them." (Video: The Washington Post)

A Senate intelligence panel plans to investigate Russia’s suspected election interference, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced on Monday as he strongly condemned any foreign interference with U.S. elections but rejected calls for an expanded congressional probe.

The plan for a congressional investigation into Russia’s potential involvement in the presidential election will be an early test of the relationship between Republicans on Capitol Hill and President-elect Donald Trump, who has disputed intelligence assessments faulting Russia for interfering in the presidential election.

Donald Trump is making the Russia question a very difficult one for Senate Republicans

“The Russians are not our friends,” McConnell declared to reporters at a scheduled year-end news conference as he announced plans for an investigation into Russia’s suspected interference in the elections. McConnell reportedly dismissed intelligence assessments earlier this fall suggesting that Russia was trying to sway the election in favor of Trump.

Members of both parties on Monday called for a public joint House-Senate inquiry that would lead to the public release of any findings. Others suggested an independent commission similar to the panel that investigated the beginnings of the war in Iraq. But McConnell said that any congressional probe of Russia would follow “regular order” through the current committee structure.

“This simply cannot be a partisan issue,” he said, before adding that the Intelligence Committee “is more than capable of conducting a complete review of this matter.”

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) also dismissed calls for a special panel, saying that the House Intelligence Committee is already “working diligently on the cyber threats posed by foreign governments and terrorist organizations.”

These senators want to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Ryan added in a statement that “exploiting the work of our intelligence community for partisan purposes does a grave disservice to those professional and potentially jeopardizes national security. As we work to protect our democracy from foreign influence, we should not cast doubt on the clear and decisive outcome of this election.”

Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House

McConnell at his news conference declined to address his role in a September briefing for lawmakers, but instead credited Senate Republicans for standing firm against Russia and blamed President Obama for Russian encroachment around the globe.

“The Obama administration for eight years attempted to reset relations with Russia, and sat back while Russia expanded its sphere of influence and intervened in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Syria, and attempted to bully Baltic countries. It defies belief that somehow Republicans in the Senate are reluctant to either review Russian tactics or ignore them,” he said.

McConnell also expressed strong support for the intelligence community, putting him at odds with Trump’s public doubts about the reliability of the nation’s intelligence agencies.

“I have the highest confidence in the intelligence community and especially the Central Intelligence Agency,” McConnell said. “The CIA is filled with selfless patriots, many of whom anonymously risk their lives for the American people.”

Transcript: Trump says he doesn’t need daily intelligence briefings

Other Republicans may be reluctant to support a wide-ranging investigation of Russia’s election-related activities given that Trump has dismissed the CIA claims as “ridiculous.”

“I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it . . . No, I don’t believe it at all,” Trump said on “Fox News Sunday” of the CIA allegations. Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway echoed her boss on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” saying that such allegations from the intelligence community were “laughable and ridiculous.”

Trump again emphasized his disbelief with tweets Monday morning:

Contrary to Trump’s assertion in the second tweet, the U.S. government officially accused Russia in October of attempting to interfere in the 2016 elections through a hacking campaign.

U.S. government officially accuses Russia of hacking campaign to interfere with elections

Adding to Trump’s criticisms of the CIA, his transition spokesman, Jason Miller, told reporters on a Monday conference call that talk of Russian interference in the election “might upset some people who are bitter that their candidate lost in November, but that’s not going to slow us down from focusing on going to work for the American people.”

Miller’s comments seemed to suggest the “bitter” talk was coming from the CIA, which has concluded privately that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and individuals close to Hillary Clinton in order to release documents tilting the electorate toward Trump. Miller did not mention the CIA directly.

McConnell’s calls for a nonpartisan approach to any investigation of Russia echoed comments by incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who pledged on Monday that any inquiry would focus on “just the facts.”

“We don’t want to point a finger and I don’t want this to turn into a Benghazi investigation, which seemed at least to many people to be highly political,” he told “CBS This Morning.” “This is serious stuff, when a foreign power tries to influence our election or damage our economy, for that matter. This is serious and it’s gotten worse. And a bipartisan investigation that’s not aimed at one specific instance but looks at the broad scope of this is just what’s needed.”

Schumer and Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) — the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee — and Democrat Jack Reed (R.I.), the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, had called for a bipartisan probe into Russia on Sunday. Their calls came after The Washington Post reported the CIA’s conclusion that Russia’s activities were intended to tip the scales to help Trump.

“You have the CIA saying one thing — I haven’t gotten the briefings yet. The FBI is saying something else. We need to get to the bottom of this in a fair, nonpartisan, non-finger-pointing way,” Schumer told CBS, noting that he will not receive any top-level intelligence briefings until he is formally installed as a Senate leader early next year.

McCain, joining the CBS interview from Arizona, said that based on information he has seen, he cannot say for certain that he believes the CIA’s assessment that Russia intervened in the election to benefit Trump. But, he added, “there’s no doubt about the hacking — let’s establish that.”

“I was hacked into, my [presidential] campaign in 2008 was hacked into, so there’s no doubt about the hacking,” McCain told CBS. “Then the question is about the intention. But it’s all about the larger issue about the cyber threat we face from Russia, China and other countries. It’s another form of warfare and the entire issue is going to be investigated by the Armed Services Committee because it’s a threat to our national security.”

McCain also said he has no information about whether Russia hacked the Republican National Committee — a point strongly disputed by party leaders who say they’ve seen no evidence of such an intrusion.

“We do not know what they have done. There’s good evidence they’ve hacked into the DNC,” McCain said.

In a separate statement, Schumer said he welcomed McConnell’s support for a bipartisan investigation.

But McConnell and Schumer had not discussed the details of how an investigation would unfold as of Monday, aides said. Schumer is expected to call for at least the partial disclosure of any investigation’s findings, aides added, a request that would carry significant political weight, given the Intelligence Committee’s penchant for secret proceedings and the potential for revelations embarrassing to the Trump administration.

Other senators, including James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), have expressed support for a broad Senate investigation. But Lankford said on Sunday that he has seen no evidence of Russia tampering with election results.

Democrats calling for a joint House-Senate probe believe that a public review of the information, on par with past public reviews of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, would better serve the public.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that a bicameral investigation “would serve the purpose of informing the public, developing a concerted response, deterring the Russians from further malign cyber action and inoculating the public against such manipulation in the future.”

Another group of top-ranking Senate Democrats have stated their preference for an independent commission to examine the allegations of Russian interference in the election. The commission they proposed would include individuals appointed by Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, who would have subpoena power and be required to produce a report on their findings within 18 months.

The idea comes from Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who will serve next year as top Democrats on the Foreign Relations, Judiciary and Appropriations Committees, respectively. In a statement, they said the purpose of the commission would be to “seek to identify those responsible, and recommend a response as well as actions the U.S. can take to defend itself in the future.”

Key GOP senators join call for bipartisan Russia election probe

When asked, McConnell on Monday also praised most of Trump’s Cabinet nominees as “outstanding” choices, but declined to weigh in on the potential nomination of ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson to serve as the next secretary of state — signaling that McConnell, like other Republicans, may have doubts about selecting an oil executive with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin as the nation’s top diplomat.

“Let’s wait until we get nominees. I think, of the nominees that we’re already aware of, I think I’m optimistic that they’ll all be confirmed,” he said. “But I don’t want to comment, comment on a phantom nominee today.”

Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.