Some Senate Republicans have this to say about the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia intervened in the 2016 election: it’s not that big of a deal.
In a rare open hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee at which the country’s top spy chiefs testified Tuesday, many Republican senators repeatedly sought to clarify that while Russia may have tried to influence the election’s outcome by favoring President-elect Donald J. Trump, it did not succeed.
They downplayed the severity of the hacking allegations, even as a new report surfaced that Trump and President Obama had been briefed on unconfirmed claims that Russia has compromising information about Trump.
“This goes on constantly…on a scale of one to 10, we’ve seen a number of 10s, this one doesn’t come close to a 10,” Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) said. “Because it’s in the political spectrum it has caught the fancy of the media, it’s caught the fancy of the American people. Russia is not, in my judgment, the most aggressive actor in this business.”
Republicans seemed to take the side of the president-elect in attempting to get the spy chiefs to concede that while Russia may have intervened, “Trump won this election fair and square,” as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) put it. The intelligence community has said it has evidence Russia intervened to influence the outcome for Trump but has not evaluated whether that country’s activities were effective.
Republicans did not deride the intelligence community or throw its findings into doubt — something that Trump has done on Twitter. But Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said his committee is reviewing the sources and methods used to conclude Russian President Vladimir Putin orchestrated the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta.
Federal Bureau of Investigations Director James B. Comey told senators that though Russians had not manipulated the vote totals, they had successfully hacked their way into some voter registration data at the state level, and could thus “potentially” manipulate voter information in the future to cause “chaos” — even through moves as simple as changing an address or a voter’s middle initial.
“The next worrisome trend in the cyber business will be the compromise of the fidelity of information…whether it’s for a criminal purpose or political purpose,” Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said. “This is well within the realm, I think, of possibility.”
Clapper also said he “wouldn’t put it past” Russian agents to even plant false information in the files of a political targets in the United States, such as when the Kremlin allegedly planted child pornography in a London-based Russian dissident’s personal files.
Frequently, senators asked Clapper and others if their assessment about Russia favoring Trump was simply based on the fact that Russia’s hacks on the DNC were more successful than their attempts to hack the Republican National Committee, and that the leaking of information appears to be selective.
“That would seem to be the logical observation that they favored the president-elect,” said Clapper. “They wished to denigrate as much as possible Hillary Clinton — their plan was to try to undermine her presidency.”
One notable exception to the Republican line of questioning came from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who suggested to his colleagues that the methods Russia used against Democrats could be turned against anyone.
“Last time I checked, Vladimir Putin was neither a registered Democrat nor a registered Republican,” Rubio said. “Neither political party should take this lightly – this should not be a partisan issue. This involves whether we are going to allow someone to actively interfere in our political discourse and divide us as a nation against each other.”
Clapper told lawmakers that in fact, Russia wasn’t particularly interested in promoting Trump’s candidacy until fairly late in the election season.
Clapper indicated that Putin at first thought of Trump as a “fringe candidate,” but that around August of last year, started to show a clear preference for placing Trump in the White House.
Intelligence chiefs refused to answer questions in the open hearing about whether the FBI was investigating any connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“Especially in a public forum, we never confirm or deny a pending investigation,” Comey said.
That drew fire from Democrats, upset over Comey’s decision to tell Congress in late October that the FBI was looking into new emails related to their closed investigation of Clinton’s private server – a decision that Democrats say might have cost Clinton the election.
“The irony of your making that statement here I cannot avoid,” Sen. Angus King (I-Me.) said.
Comey retorted that the FBI “sometimes think[s] differently about closed investigations,” but never about pending ones.