WASHINGTON – As President-elect Donald Trump dismissed intelligence reports about Russian interference in the presidential election as “ridiculous,” calls for a government investigation from lawmakers, including some in his own party, grew louder Sunday.
It marked the first significant post-election pushback Trump has encountered from a Republican Party that only belatedly and reluctantly embraced the unconventional nominee, whose views often clash with traditional GOP ideology.
In a rare joint statement Sunday, four high-profile Republican and Democratic senators called for a government investigation into the matter and urged colleagues not to allow the issue to become partisan.
“Recent reports of Russian interference in our election should alarm every American,” read a statement from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz.; committee member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; and Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I. “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.”
The statement came in the aftermath of a Washington Post report Friday that a secret CIA analysis found that the Russian government’s hacking of Democratic Party emails this year was a deliberate effort to damage Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and boost Trump’s chances.
The Trump transition team responded by mockingly comparing the CIA assessment to the agency’s historic misjudgment on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. On “Fox News Sunday,” Trump called the assessment “ridiculous,” and suggested it was an excuse Democrats put forward to rationalize their loss.
“I don’t believe it,” Trump told host Chris Wallace. “I think the Democrats are putting it out because they suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics in this country.”
In the interview, Trump also defended his decision to skip some of his daily intelligence briefings, saying he gets them “when I need it” and complaining they are repetitive.
“I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years,” Trump said.
The Trump transition team’s resistance to calls for an investigation into Russia’s actions and refusal to accept the consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies appears rooted in a fear that it may undercut the legitimacy of his victory.
“The Russians didn’t tell Hillary Clinton to ignore Wisconsin and Michigan, OK?” said Reince Priebus, who is to become Trump’s chief of staff, on ABC’s “This Week.” “She lost the election because her ideas were bad.”
Trump tried to cast doubt on the accuracy of the CIA analysis on “Fox New Sunday.”
“They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody. It could be somebody sitting in a bed some place,” Trump said.
But in October, the U.S. intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security said publicly that they were “confident that the Russian government” was behind the hacking of U.S. political groups and individuals in an attempt “to interfere with the U.S. election process.” At the time, they did not say whether the efforts were aimed at helping one candidate or the other.
During the final weeks of the campaign, thousands of embarrassing emails, many stolen from the account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, were released by WikiLeaks on nearly a daily basis.
On Friday, the White House said President Barack Obama had ordered the CIA and other intelligence agencies to conduct a full review of foreign-based digital attacks aimed at influencing the election. Obama ordered the review completed before he leaves office on Jan. 20.
Since the election, Republicans have worked hard to move beyond the divisions caused by Trump’s candidacy and unite behind the new head of their party. Several high-profile GOP leaders, including the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, continued to voice support for Trump over the weekend.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., stopped short of calling for a congressional investigation Sunday in a statement to Politico.
“Speaker Ryan has said for months that foreign intervention in our elections is unacceptable,” spokeswoman AshLee Strong said. “The speaker cannot comment on or characterize the content of classified briefings but he rejects any politicization of intelligence matters.”
But Trump’s attempt to undercut public trust in the CIA assessment, his willingness to break with the intelligence community and his conciliatory approach toward Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to be too much for some Republicans.
McCain told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that Trump should acknowledge Russia may have influenced the election.
“I don’t know what to make of it, because it is clear the Russians interfered,” McCain said. “The facts are there.”
McCain, who called Putin a “thug” and a “murderer,” said there should be a select committee formed to investigate. Several House members have called for an independent commission to investigate.
The backlash also raises questions about the confirmation prospects of Trump’s potential secretary of state, Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive Rex Tillerson.
Trump said Sunday that he’s still weighing candidates, but he defended the oil magnate, who has close ties to Russia’s president, as a “world-class player.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday on Twitter that “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a secretary of state.”
McCain told “Fox News Sunday” that “I don’t know what Mr. Tillerson’s relationship with Vladimir Putin was, but I’ll tell you it is a matter of concern to me.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., voiced separate concerns about former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, who is being considered as deputy secretary of State. Paul told ABC’s “This Week” that Bolton’s continuing defense of the 2003 Iraq war proved he had not learned the lessons from the unpopular conflict.
“John Bolton doesn’t get it,” Paul said. “He still believes in regime change. He’s still a big cheerleader for the Iraq War.”
Democrats insist they only want to get to the bottom of what could be Russia’s unprecedented interference in a U.S. presidential election, but Trump’s handling of the allegations is handing them a political cudgel to use against the president-elect even before he takes office.
“The reason that this Russian campaign was so phenomenally successful is that you have the rare specter of a presidential candidate and president-elect willing to give the Russians cover,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House Select Intelligence Committee, said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
“The Russians can put out on their TV, their Russia Today and Sputnik, that the president-elect of the United States doesn’t believe they were involved,” he said. “That is so extraordinarily beneficial to Russian propaganda. It is what has made this so powerful and so damaging to us.”
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