2 senators take Trump to task for running down intelligence community

President-elect Donald Trump has to make a simple choice, two U.S. senators insisted during an Armed Services committee hearing Thursday on cyberthreats and allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. elections: He can trust American intelligence agencies or he can trust America’s enemies.

That was the clear advice from Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., during the hearing, where they and others seemed concerned that Trump appears to be choosing the second option.

The hearing featured testimony from National Intelligence Director James Clapper and National Security Agency director Adm. Michael Rogers on American cybersecurity. A central focus of the hearing was the allegations that Russia had interfered in and tried to influence the U.S. elections.

The president-elect has been publicly dubious of the assertion, and at times appears to have mocked the notion, which is backed by the entirety of the U.S. intelligence community. The hearing Thursday appeared to be timed to Trump’s scheduled Friday intelligence briefing on the matter.

It follows a week during which Julian Assange – the founder of WikiLeaks and the source of hacked and leaked emails last year from the Democratic National Committee and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton insider John Podesta – denied the emails came from Russia. In tweets, Trump accepted Assange’s statement, which runs counter to the U.S. intelligence belief.

Graham, who smiled through most of his time questioning the intel leaders, phrased his statements as advice to the new leader of his party.

“I will let the president-elect know that it’s OK to challenge the intel,” he said. “You’re absolutely right to do so. But what I don’t want you to do is undermine the people who are serving our nation in this arena until you are absolutely sure they need to be undermined. I think they need to be uplifted and not undermined.”

Graham said that a recent trip to the Baltics, Georgia and Ukraine – all, he said, under greater threat from Russia than the United States is – had convinced him, “We’re in a fight for our lives. ... Putin is up to no good and he better be stopped.”

And, he said, that fight will require relying on the intelligence community.

“Mr. President-elect, when you listen to these people, you can be skeptical,” he said. “But understand that they are the best among us, and they’re trying to protect us.”

McCaskill was a bit less good-natured. She said the “notion that the elected leader of this country would put Julian Assange on a pedestal compared to the men and women of the intelligence community” should have created “howls” from both political parties.

She noted that Clapper started serving in U.S. intelligence in 1963 and that he is “apolitical.”

She then asked Clapper whether it was important to “maintain the intelligence community as a foundational apolitical block of our country, in terms of its protection?”

Clapper’s response: “I could not feel stronger about exactly that. I think it’s hugely important that the intelligence community conduct itself and be seen as independent providing unvarnished, untainted, unbiased” intelligence.

Which led to McCaskill appearing to warn the incoming president that he was playing at a game that transcends politics in this matter.

“So let’s talk about who benefits from the president-elect trashing the intelligence community,” she asked. “Who benefits from that: the American people? They’re losing confidence in the intelligence community and the work of the intelligence community.”

Clapper noted an “important distinction between healthy skepticism – which policy leaders, including policy leader number one, should always have – and disparagement.”

That led McCaskill to say, “I assume the biggest benefactors of the American people having less confidence in the intelligence community are in fact the actors you’ve named today: Iran, North Korea, China, Russia and ISIS?”

Matthew Schofield: 202-383-6066, @mattschodcnews