Influential senators from both parties amplified calls for an independent investigation of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, setting up a clash with President-elect Donald Trump over U.S. policy toward Russia and potentially his pick for secretary of state.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) issued a joint statement Sunday with the incoming Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, and top Armed Services Committee Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island that Russian interference in the election “should alarm every American.” They said Congress must investigate further without allowing it to become a partisan issue.
But in an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Trump again bluntly dismissed reports of Russian meddling, calling them “ridiculous” and an attempt to undermine his victory. At the same time, Trump’s incoming chief of staff suggested the president-elect would not oppose congressional inquiries.
Still, the competing statements from Trump and the bipartisan group of senators sets the stage for a possible showdown over how far Congress goes to investigate Russia’s apparent interference in the election. Other Republicans on Sunday joined the calls for a probe or cast doubt on Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil CEO with close ties to Vladimir Putin who is reportedly in line to be selected as secretary of state.
The joint statement from the group of prominent senators from both parties will make it difficult for congressional leaders to dismiss the issue.
“Democrats and Republicans must work together, and across the jurisdictional lines of the Congress, to examine these recent incidents thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyberattacks,” Schumer, Reed, McCain and Graham said in the joint statement.
“This cannot become a partisan issue,” they added. “The stakes are too high for our country. We are committed to working in this bipartisan manner, and we will seek to unify our colleagues around the goal of investigating and stopping the grave threats that cyberattacks conducted by foreign governments pose to our national security.”
Schumer separately had called for a congressional probe into Russia’s influence in the election, saying Saturday that Democrats would continue to press for one when the new Congress convenes next year. And McCain flatly disagreed with Trump on the issue.
“I don’t know what to make of [Trump’s comments], because it’s clear the Russians interfered,” McCain said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “Facts are stubborn things.”
McCain predicted that a congressional investigation would likely be lengthy and said that in an “ideal world,” he would prefer a select committee on the matter, made up of key committee leaders on Capitol Hill. After declining to engage at length with Trump’s policy stances and controversial remarks for much of this year, McCain is emerging again as a lead foil to the incoming president on national security matters.
The heightened focus on Russia could also complicate the outlook for Tillerson. McCain said Tillerson’s “close personal” relationship with the Russian leader is a “matter of concern,” but that senators would let Tillerson defend himself during the confirmation process. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who ran for the GOP nomination earlier this year, also cast skepticism on Tillerson: “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState,” he tweeted.
Trump defended Tillerson on Sunday, tweeting: “Whether I choose him or not for ‘State’- Rex Tillerson, the Chairman & CEO of ExxonMobil, is a world class player and dealmaker. Stay tuned!”
Separate from the potential nomination fight, other Republicans indicated Sunday that they were on board with a bipartisan investigation into Russian influence.
“We need to get to the bottom of it. There should be an investigation,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said of potential Russian interference on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “It’s a little premature to talk about responses until we know what happened. But we should know what happened.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) tweeted Sunday morning that he backs the effort. And Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said she “absolutely” supports the investigation but is “not questioning that Donald Trump won the election.”
“Vladimir Putin is a thug and a bully. … He has to be held accountable,” she said on “This Week.” “For Donald Trump to dismiss out of hand the intelligence community’s fact-gathering frankly doesn’t bode well for him protecting our country.”
Trump has repeatedly dismissed the prospect of Russian interference in the U.S. election; rather, he’s encouraged closer ties with Russia — believing Putin’s government can work with the United States to fight the Islamic State. On Sunday, Trump called allegations of Russian interference “ridiculous” and an “excuse” from Democrats who lost the Nov. 8 election.
“Every week it’s another excuse. We had a massive landslide victory, as you know, in the Electoral College,” Trump said on “Fox News Sunday.” “They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody. It could be somebody sitting in a bed someplace.”
The joint statement from the senators comes on the heels of an explosive Washington Post report that the CIA concluded that Russia intervened in the election to help Trump win, instead of simply trying to undermine confidence in American democracy. McCain declined to make that explicit link during his CBS interview Sunday, saying whether Russians interfered to benefit a “certain candidate” would be subject to the congressional investigation.
Trump’s transition team immediately disparaged the CIA assessment as the work of “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, tried to walk back that criticism Sunday, saying the president-elect “trusts the CIA.” Priebus denied that the RNC was hacked but said that he and Trump would support the bipartisan calls for an investigation.
“I support anything that we can do, including investigations and otherwise, to protect Americans from foreign interference,” Priebus said “This Week.” “So I’m all for finding out how in the world this stuff is happening … we don’t like this.”
Priebus added: “I think the president-elect supports anything we can do.” And Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to the transition team, said Trump “will not interfere with the legislative branch” when asked about congressional calls for an investigation into Russian meddling into the election.
A spokeswoman for Paul Ryan issued a statement Sunday that the House speaker “has said for months that foreign intervention in our elections is unacceptable,” adding: “The speaker can not comment on or characterize the content of classified briefings but he rejects any politicization of intelligence matters.” The statement did not address the call for congressional investigations.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has scheduled a Monday news conference and will almost surely be asked about the matter.
The Post reported that he was among senators briefed in September on Russian meddling in the election, but that McConnell asserted to government officials that he had doubts about the veracity of the intelligence and said he would push back against efforts to go public.
An aide to McConnell said Saturday that any foreign breach of U.S. cybersecurity is “disturbing.” McConnell has largely deferred to the current White House, which has launched its own investigation into Russia’s activities.
But other senators are pushing for a more aggressive response.
“I think the more facts disclosed, the better off we’ll all be,” Reed told reporters late Friday after the Post story was published. “Not just now, [but] this capacity exists, and it has been exercised in this election. If we don’t recognize it and take steps, all of our elections will be subject to intrusion, and that’s contrary to the whole fundamental principle of free, fair, democratic elections.”