Republican leaders in Congress on Sunday defended President-elect Donald Trump’s desire to pursue better relations with Russia, but they cast strong doubt on whether his administration would succeed given the failed efforts of previous presidents.
Trump has alarmed lawmakers over his public skepticism of a U.S. intelligence report last week that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an “influence campaign” to sway the presidential election in Trump’s favor. His aides reiterated Trump’s contention that Democrats were pursuing a “political witch hunt” to sow doubts about his victory.
Reince Priebus, who is slated to become Trump’s White House chief of staff, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that it is “indisputable” that the rollout of the report is “politically motivated to discredit” Trump.
GOP congressional leaders have generally accepted the intelligence community’s findings, and they sought Sunday to deflect attention from Trump’s stance toward Russia by emphasizing that his professed goal of improving the United States’ ability to work with Moscow is in line with the approach taken by his predecessors.
“It’s not unusual for a new president to want to get along with Russia,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on “Face the Nation.” But he added: “My suspicion is that his hopes will be dashed pretty quickly. Russia is a big adversary and they demonstrated it by trying to mess around in our elections.”
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he understands why Trump would “want to be buddies” with Putin, saying it was no different from President Obama and former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
But Nunes, a member of Trump’s transition team, said on “Fox News Sunday” that he has “cautioned this administration to be careful with Putin, because I think he is a bad actor. It is true we’d like to be friends with Russia, but I’m just not sure it’s possible.”
Bush said early in his presidency that he found Putin trustworthy after he had stared into his eyes to “get a sense of his soul.” Bush traveled to Russia seven times, more visits than to any other country, but his efforts to court Moscow ended disastrously when Russia invaded Georgia.
The Obama administration announced a “reset” with Moscow in 2009, hoping to have better success wooing then-President Dmitry Medvedev. But that effort quickly unraveled in the wake of Moscow’s harboring of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, Russia’s military incursions into Ukraine and its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Obama traveled to Moscow only once in eight years, canceling a bilateral meeting there in 2013, and he met with Putin only in informal settings on the sidelines of multilateral summits.
Last month, Obama announced punitive actions against Russia for its cyberhacking of the Democratic and Republican parties during the election. He said the United States would expel 35 Russian diplomats and close two Russian compounds. Putin, anticipating a shift of U.S. policy under Trump, said he would not retaliate by expelling any U.S. officials.
Obama has said his administration might take additional actions before he leaves office Jan. 20, including potential covert cyberattacks on Russian institutions.
In an interview that aired Sunday, Obama said he did not misjudge the threat from Putin, even though he had dismissed Republican Mitt Romney’s contention during the 2012 campaign that Russia was the United States’ biggest geopolitical threat.
“I don’t think I underestimated him,” Obama said on ABC News’s “This Week,” “but I think that I underestimated the degree to which, in this new information age, it is possible for misinformation, for cyberhacking and so forth, to have an impact on our open societies, our open systems, to insinuate themselves into our democratic practices in ways that I think are accelerating.”
The report, released Friday from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said Russian operatives hacked into the emails of Democratic Party officials and released them publicly to harm Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and, ultimately, help Trump.
On Saturday, Trump touted Russia as a potential ally, saying “only ‘stupid’ people, or fools” think improving relations is a bad thing.
“When I am President, Russia will respect us far more than they do now and . . . both countries will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the WORLD!” Trump tweeted.
Several of Trump’s top picks for high-level jobs, including ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson, who has been nominated for secretary of state, and Michael Flynn, named as Trump’s national security adviser, have ties to Russia. Tillerson advocated against economic sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe on Russia after the invasion of the Crimea region of Ukraine, while Flynn dined with Putin at a lavish banquet last year thrown by the Russian state television network.
But Trump allies noted that other Trump selections have been more hawkish on Russia, including Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), named to take over the Central Intelligence Agency, and former senator Daniel Coats (R-Ind.), chosen as the director of national intelligence.
“These are clear-eyed people who understand fully that the Russians are not our friends,” McConnell said.