When a foreign actor hacks into an American institution, it's generally regarded as a very bad thing. But Donald Trump's victory has put Republicans in the unenviable position of playing down the effect and import of Russia's alleged hacking and questioning the intelligence community's conclusions about it.
And that's been on full display in recent days.
With news that the Obama administration is launching new sanctions on Russia, Republicans have taken to arguing that the Russian hacking story is overblown — arguing that it didn't have an effect on the election, that the information that resulted was all true and even that the United States isn't in a position to judge.
“If you look at the information that got leaked through Anonymous or WikiLeaks, if you look at that information, is any of it not true?” Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) asked rhetorically on CNN on Thursday.
Yoho's argument echoes one made by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who is viewed as perhaps the most pro-Russia member of Congress.
“Whether they're Russian hackers or any other hackers, the only information that we were getting from hackers was accurate information, was truthful,” Rohrabacher said earlier this month. “And that's not gonna turn the tide. If the American people have been given more truthful information, that's terrific.”
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said something similar this week: “But the bottom line is if they succeeded, if Russia succeeded in giving the American people information that was accurate, then they merely did what the media should have done.”
Yoho also argued Thursday that the United States does the same kind of thing. “I want to use extreme caution here, because we could look at what President Obama did with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu when he was funding money through the State Department — $350,000 to Voice One — that interfered with a state’s election. So, if we’re going to accuse another state of doing the very same thing that President Obama did, we need to be very careful on what we’re doing.”
Yoho's reference is to the State Department's grants to the One Voice Movement, which Republicans have suggested were tantamount to political contributions aimed at ousting Netanyahu. A somewhat tense exchange with CNN correspondent Jim Sciutto followed, with Sciutto saying it was “an odd point to make for an American.”
“In fact, it seems you’re making a point that Vladimir Putin, frankly, has made,” Sciutto said. Yoho went on to argue that Russia should be punished only if there is "100 percent conclusive” evidence that it was behind the hacking.
Meanwhile, Rep. Sean P. Duffy (R-Wis.), a member of Trump's transition team, has argued in recent days that he doesn't believe Russia even affected the election, citing his own district in the key state of Wisconsin.
“I would argue to you ... that at least in my part of Wisconsin that was a blue state that went red for Donald Trump, they really didn’t care that the DNC was supporting Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. That didn’t change their vote,” Duffy said Friday morning on CNN, citing one of the many revelations from the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta was also hacked.
Duffy added: “They didn’t impact the election. But if they tried to, we should investigate that, and we should hold Russia to account.”
He said something similar Wednesday on CNN: “No one should mess with our elections. And if they do, they should be met with a blunt force from the American people and the American government. But it should also be tempered with the fact that they didn't actually influence the outcome.”
This is a very delicate dance for Republicans, and it's one that Trump and circumstance have foisted upon them. As I've written before, the narrow nature of Trump's win in key states — he beat Clinton by less than a point in the three decisive states, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — directs basically any discussion of Russia's hacking back to one central question: Did it change the results of the 2016 election?
Trump, for one, isn't even acknowledging that the hacking was conducted by Russia, as the intelligence community has concluded, or that the effort was aimed at helping him win the election, as it has also concluded.
Republicans generally haven't been so dubious on that first count (Yoho and Rohrabacher notwithstanding), but they've been forced to do some real verbal gymnastics here. And it's going to continue as the probe of Russia's role in the election and the sanctions drama plays out.
There just aren't many good answers for a GOP that is sandwiched between investigating very serious allegations against an adversarial foreign power, and potentially undermining the legitimacy of their new Republican president.