This post has been updated to clarify the context of Sen. McConnell's remarks that leaking information about Russia "is irresponsible, likely illegal and potentially for partisan political gain."
As a candidate, Donald Trump's positions often resulted in awkward questions for Senate Republicans. Chalk one up for consistency: President-elect Trump is doing the same.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was forced to balance four competing realities emerging in response to news that a CIA assessment thinks Russia tried to help Trump win the election:
1) The possibility that Russia did actually try to get Trump elected, as alleged in that assessment reported Friday by The Washington Post
2) The mainstream foreign policy view that Russia is not a friend of the United States
3) The desire of several GOP senators to investigate the heck outta Russia
4) The president-elect's continued insistence on giving Russia the benefit of the doubt.
Let's pause for a moment on that list. What's the one thing that's not quite like the others?
That would be No. 4, Trump's assessment that the CIA report is not believable. While even Senate Democrats acknowledge it's too soon to say we know exactly what Russia did and how they did it, most U.S. foreign policy leaders are willing to give our intelligence community the benefit of the doubt that Russia did something to interfere with our election. Our president-elect is not.
That push-and-pull, as The Fix's Aaron Blake laid out so well Saturday, threatens to put Republicans like McConnell, who are charged with keeping the peace in the party, in an impossible situation: Congress has an obligation to investigate Russia's potential interference — and yet Republicans have a president-elect who feels such investigations undermine his victory.
“What this is is an attempt to try to delegitimize President-elect Trump’s win,” spokesman Jason Miller told reporters Monday, when asked about the prospect of a bipartisan investigation. “First, after the election, it was the recount nonsense, then it was discussion of a popular vote, now it’s anonymous, off-the-record sources with conflicting information trying to raise other issues.”
For McConnell, trying to keep everyone happy — or at least avoid intraparty warfare — could prove to be a nearly impossible task that requires choosing his words very carefully and walking a very thin line between both sides. This has echoes of the campaign itself, where Republicans were careful not to criticize Trump nor agree with his more controversial statements.
After The Washington Post reported Friday on the CIA assessment, Trump's transition team essentially demanded that Washington drop it. In a statement, they said: “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest electoral college victories in history. It’s now time to move on and 'Make America Great Again.'” (It makes sense politically that Trump would be defiant about this: It's a victory that risks being called into question. Also, throughout the campaign, Trump declined to say anything negative about Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.)
But Senate Republicans can't simply drop this. As McConnell made clear Monday, it's the Senate's responsibility to investigate whether a foreign state tried to interfere with the election, an act Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) described as “another form of warfare.”
On Monday, McConnell sided with McCain & Co. on at least having investigations: “Obviously, any foreign breach of our cybersecurity measures is disturbing and I strongly condemn any such efforts.”
But McConnell has also indicated he's willing to come to Trump's defense, even at the risk of calling into question U.S. intelligence findings.
The Post also reported that in September, McConnell was among a handful of congressional leaders who got a secret briefing by Obama administration officials on Russia's interference in the election. At the time, McConnell cast doubt on intelligence officials' assessment and made clear that any attempt by the Obama administration to go public with this before the election would be considered by Republicans a partisan attack.
Now that those findings are public, McConnell has been choosing his words carefully.
On Sunday, he was noticeably absent from a bipartisan letter sent out over the weekend by senators calling for congressional hearings. (His Monday news conference was meant to clarify that he supports hearings on Russia.)
That same day, in an interview aired on “Fox News Sunday,” Trump called the CIA assessment “ridiculous,” “just another excuse” by Democrats.
On Monday, McConnell subtly countered Trump's narrative about the CIA. “I have the highest confidence in the intelligence community, and especially the Central Intelligence Agency,” he said. “The CIA is filled with selfless patriots, many of whom anonymously risk their lives for the American people.”
He repeatedly declined to answer reporters' questions about whether Trump's position on Russia would put him in a tough spot.
“I just addressed how I feel about the Russians,” he said, “and I hope those who are going to be in a position of responsibility in the new administration share my view.” Later, he added: “I really don't have any further intention of elaborating.”
McConnell is sticking with the facts: The Director of National Intelligence said before the election that Russia hacked into the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta's emails to leak politically compromising ones.
Any other assumptions about Russia “is irresponsible, likely illegal, and potentially for partisan political gain.”
It's a statement aimed at those who leaked a CIA report, but I'd venture it could also be applied as a warning to any number of people claiming they know (or don't know) what Russia did.
And the fact that we're parsing McConnell's words for double meanings (that is staff is adamant is not there) underscores the politically perilous situation he could be in, caught between one side of his party that wants to dig to the bottom of this, and another that very much wants to leave it alone.