As evidence piles up that Russia actively tried to tilt the presidential election to Donald Trump, the big flash point over a potential U.S. response won't just be between that nation and the United States — it could also be between the president-elect and the Republican Party.
Some senior congressional Republicans are indicating that they want to investigate Russia's meddling in our election; Trump — as well as some members of the GOP on Capitol Hill — has been clear that he wants to give Russia the benefit of the doubt. (After all, it's his victory that risks being called into question.)
It's a no-win situation for the GOP. But what if Russia-distrusting Republicans in Congress could get Trump to take a tougher line with Moscow? It would certainly make their lives a lot easier by allowing them to both hold Russia accountable and avoid a potential intraparty war as soon as Trump takes office.
They do have options to try to steer Trump away from being friendly with Russia — though pretty much all of them risk some level of confrontation with their president. Of course, there's no guarantee Trump would go along with Congress. But Mieke Eoyang, a national security expert with the center-left think tank Third Way, weighed in on four ways Congress could act, whether the commander in chief is on board or not:
1. Hold hearings. Lots of hearings.
A hearing is Congress's equivalent of a bully pulpit.
And there are some early indications that Republicans, who control both chambers, intend to use it to get tough on Russia — and Trump. The Washington Post's Karoun Demirjian reported that several Republican senators who run powerful committees — Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) on the Armed Services Committee, Richard Burr (N.C.) on the Intelligence Committee and Bob Corker (Tenn.) on the Foreign Relations Committee — are readying hearings on Russia's ability to hack into U.S. political parties and even weapons systems.
These coordinated hearings are likely to have three overarching goals, each of which builds on the other:
1. Explain to the American public what, exactly, officials think Russia did to try to influence the election and how directly involved its government was in this.
2. Piece together an ironclad case that Russia took unprecedented steps to meddle in American democracy.
3. Try to prove to Trump that Russia is the bad guy here, in a way that gives their president no outs to say, as he did this past week, that the election-related hacks could have been done by “some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
Then again, these hearings also risk dividing Republicans in Congress. The Post reported Friday that in September, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) got a secret briefing on all this and threw doubt on intelligence officials' assessment that Russia was meddling in the election to benefit Trump. And he made clear he'd consider any attempt to go public with it before the election to be a partisan attack on his nominee.
Which raises the question of how those who wanted to defend Trump before the election will react to these revelations now that he's about a month shy of being president.
2. Take it to Russia overseas
The battleground for this fight is in Syria and Ukraine. (Few things having to do with U.S.-Russian relations are direct.) Shortly after the election, the House passed a bill that would levy sanctions against any nation that tries to help the Syrian government in its effort to regain control in a years-long civil war. (The United States is on the side of the rebels.)
The bill was aimed partly at Russia, which has been providing military aid to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even as human rights groups have said the Syrian government is slaughtering and even torturing innocent civilians.
Congress also passed a defense policy bill that calls for providing millions of dollars worth of weapons and other lethal aid to the government of Ukraine, another country torn by violence where the United States and Russia have held very different positions.
These bills attempt to draw a line in the sand for Russia and its actions overseas, but they also draw a line in the sand for Trump: Sign them or risk looking weak on Syria/Russia/the Islamic State.
Trump has said it would be “wonderful” if the United States and Russia could work together in Syria. But it's much easier to say that during a campaign than it is to veto a bill that your own party put on your desk and says is crucial to U.S. national security interests.
(There's also always the possibility of other sanctions aimed at Russia that have more to do with its actions in the United States than its Syria moves — though no sign of anything of that sort is in the works.)
3. Start a war of words with Trump
I call this one the Lindsey O. Graham method: Call out those who disagree with you on Russia strategy, even if that person is the president.
Or, perhaps, especially if that person is the president.
“I’m going after Russia in every way you can go after Russia,” the Republican South Carolina senator said Wednesday on CNN. “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 [Russian President Vladimir] Putin personally to pay the price.”
This step probably creates the most chaos between Trump and his party, but it could be most effective if Republicans really do want to steer him away from Russia, Eoyang said.
Democrats have been crying foul about Russia for some time now, but their words often get lost in everyday partisan bickering — especially when their side is the one that lost the presidential election.
It raises eyebrows — and makes headlines — when Republicans are the ones critiquing their own president's position on Russia. And that could make it harder for Trump to ignore or dismiss.
4. Hope Russia shows its true colors
Intelligence officials say there's “consensus” in their community that Russia tried to sway the U.S. election in an “unprecedented” way.
But you'd also be hard pressed to find a national security official who thinks Russia did this because it likes Trump, Eoyang said: “It's not like the Russians are partisan. They just want to see America weak.”
In other words, some national security experts say that they think it's only a matter of time until Russia decides it is in its interests to try to undermine Trump.
And letting Russia make the case to Trump via its own actions that it is a foe, not a friend, could be one of the most effective ways — possibly the only effective way — for Russia-skeptical Republicans in Congress to get their president to actually see Moscow the way they do.