Displaying rare bipartisanship, four leading senators from both political parties on Sunday called for an urgent inquiry into allegations of Russian meddling in the recent election.
But the call only served to emphasize the division between their view and that of President-elect Donald Trump, who labeled the charges of Russian meddling “ridiculous” and took new aim at the sprawling U.S. intelligence community, which reportedly has concluded that electing Trump was Russia’s motivation for its actions.
“Recent reports of Russian interference in our election should alarm every American,” the senators, who include Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who is the party’s leader in the Senate, said in a joint statement.
The statement said recent hacking attacks “have cut to the heart of our free society” and require urgent investigation and action to halt the threat they “pose to our national security.”
“This cannot become a partisan issue. The stakes are too high for our country,” the senators said in the three-paragraph statement.
Joining in the statement were Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island. Both Graham and Reed are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which McCain chairs.
McCain went further in an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “It’s clear the Russians interfered,” he said. “Facts are stubborn things. They did hack into this campaign.”
McCain and Graham are both Republican hawks on Russia. McCain called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a thug, a murderer and a killer” on “Face the Nation.” Their open opposition to Trump over the hacking allegations underscores how Russia and Putin himself are becoming a wedge issue between Trump and leading legislators of his own party.
Graham tweeted on Saturday that, “Russia is trying to break the backs of democracies – and democratic movements – all over the world.”
Trump, in a Fox News interview, hailed his leading candidate to be secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon Mobil, as a “world-class player” who “does massive deals with Russia” for his oil company.
In the interview, taped Saturday and aired Sunday, Trump belittled reports in the Washington Post and New York Times that the CIA believes Russian agents interfered to assure his victory in the election.
“I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it,” Trump said, adding that Democrats were behind the reports, and perhaps not the Central Intelligence Agency.
Trump has taken startling aim in recent days at the U.S intelligence community, which comprises 16 other agencies in addition to the CIA. Late Friday, the Trump campaign issued a terse, unsigned statement slapping the CIA over reports that it believed Russia had meddled in the campaign.
“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the statement said, referring to false claims that the Iraqi leader hid weapons of mass destruction that triggered the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, pushed back against suggestions that Trump is disdainful of the nation’s collective intelligence apparatus.
“He absolutely respects the intelligence community,” Conway told “Face the Nation.”
In its report, the New York Times said intelligence agencies had “high confidence” that Russian hackers penetrated both the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee’s emails but released only Democratic emails in an effort to undermine the campaign of Hillary Clinton and damage public views of the credibility of the election itself.
For its part, the Post reported that the intelligence apparatus had identified the individuals who hacked the DNC and provided information to WikiLeaks, which published tens of thousands of emails, and that those people were trying to sway the election for Trump.
But Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus, who is expected to be Trump’s White House chief of staff, disputed reports that the RNC’s computers had been hacked in an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“The RNC was absolutely not hacked,” Priebus said. He said when news surfaced in June that the Democratic National Committee’s computer system had been penetrated, the Republicans called the FBI and “they came in to review what we were doing.”
He said that review find no evidence that the RNC system had been penetrated. He also said there was no evidence that RNC employees’ personal email accounts had been hacked. “So what I’m trying to tell you is the RNC was not hacked,” he said.
Separately, Trump told Fox that he won’t be receiving intelligence briefings with the same frequency as past presidents because his aides will be getting them, and the information is often repetitive.
“I don’t have to be told — you know, 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. Could be eight years — but eight years. I don’t need that,” he said.
“But I do say, ‘If something should change, let us know,’ ” he said.
Trump indicated that the kinds of briefings that President Barack Obama receives on nearly a daily basis, even when traveling, are unnecessary.
“Now, there will be times where it might change. I mean, there will be some very fluid situations,” Trump said. “I’ll be there not every day, but more than that. But I don’t need to be told, Chris, the same thing every day, every morning — same words. ‘Sir, nothing has changed. Let’s go over it again.’ I don’t need that.”
News reports suggest that Trump is taking the intelligence briefings always offered during a transition period only once a week.
A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Joel D. Melstad, declined comment, saying in an email, “We’re not able to provide anything on this.”
The debate over intelligence comes at what some see as a delicate period, a transition where a lame duck leader awaits the inauguration of a president-elect who has not yet staffed key leadership posts.
“Transitions are a time when adversaries try to take advantage,” White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco told reporters Friday.
She cautioned that she’d seen no specific information about a threat but was speaking in general terms about vulnerabilities in a presidential transition.