Leading Republican lawmakers have set themselves on a collision course with President-elect Donald Trump with their decision to probe deeply into whether Russia interfered with the just-passed U.S. election.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., finds himself in the spotlight as his Senate Intelligence Committee undertakes to investigate whether Russia engaged in cyber hacking to influence the outcome of the presidential election.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave the nod to Burr’s committee to pursue an investigation a day after a bipartisan group of senators issued a statement calling for a probe.
“This simply cannot be a partisan issue,” McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Monday, adding that “the Russians are not our friends.”
Burr pledged an aggressive probe. “The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has and remains concerned about Russia’s actions,” he told McClatchy in an email. He pledged to “conduct vigorous oversight” in an “appropriate and responsible way.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in a somewhat less forceful statement, said “any foreign intervention in our elections is entirely unacceptable. And any intervention by Russia is especially problematic because, under President Putin, Russia has been an aggressor that consistently undermines American interests.”
The Trump transition team reacted angrily to the Republican calls for a probe and its spokesman, Jason Miller, suggested they were an effort to de-legitimize Trump’s victory.
Trump took to Twitter to question whether it was even possible to know that the Russians had hacked the Democratic National Committee computers and the private email of the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, John Podesta. The results of those hacks led to a steady leak by WikiLeaks of sometimes embarrassing emails throughout the summer and fall.
“Unless you catch ‘hackers’ in the act, it is very hard to determine who was doing the hacking. Why wasn’t this brought up before election?” he tweeted.
And some Democrats were unsatisfied with McConnell’s plans for a Senate Intelligence Committee probe. U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Ben Cardin of Maryland and Patrick Leahy of Vermont called for the creation of an independent nonpartisan commission of non-congressional members to conduct the investigation. A similar commission probed the events leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“We need this commission to determine if ... the real intent of what appears to be a classic Russian covert influence campaign was to harm the candidacy of the Democratic candidate or undermine our democratic system,” Feinstein said.
There were also calls among House members for any investigation to include them. Rep. Eric Swalwell of Dublin, Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House CIA subcommittee, said he’s introduced legislation calling for a 12-member bipartisan panel to probe alleged Russian hacking.
Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, N.C., also said he would prefer the appointment of a separate “select” bipartisan committee to investigate the alleged election meddling, though he had confidence Burr would lead a thorough and impartial probe.
“This is pretty much uncharted territory ... This is a very, very serious matter,” Price told McClatchy on Monday.
Not everyone thought a new investigation was called for. Rep. Devin Nunes, the California Republican who chairs of the House Intelligence Committee and a member of Trump’s transition team, said he doesn’t see the need for a new investigation.
“I do not see any benefit in opening further investigations, which would duplicate current committee efforts and intelligence community inquiries,” Nunes said.
But even Nunes indicated he was unhappy about conflicts between the conclusions of the FBI and those of the CIA about aspects of Russia’s alleged involvement, including whether the Republican National Committee also was hacked. RNC officials deny their computers were penetrated, but news accounts have quoted officials saying the intelligence community had concluded that they had been. The fact that no pirated material from the RNC has surfaced reportedly was one reason intelligence analysts concluded the Russian goal was to promote a Trump victory.
“I was dismayed that we did not learn earlier, directly from you, about reported conflicting assessments and the CIA’s reported revision of information previously conveyed to this committee,” Nunes wrote in a letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Nunes asked Clapper that the CIA and FBI brief the House Intelligence Committee on their assessments regarding Russia and the election; explain the plans for an investigation that President Barack Obama has ordered into alleged Russian meddling, and to provide the committee with a written assessment from the CIA, FBI, and broader intelligence community regarding Russia and the election.
White House officials announced last week that Obama had ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to complete an investigation into the allegations before he leaves office Jan. 20.
The ramifications of such a probe are far from clear, but the consequences could be stunning – and unprecedented in American politics. While allegations of foreign meddling in other countries’ political processes are common, the United States has long believed itself immune from such campaigns.
But the surprise nature of Trump’s victory – virtually no one expected him to win – Hillary Clinton’s 2.7 million lead in the popular vote, and worries that the electorate may have been misled by fake news stories distributed over social media have combined to raise questions about the process.
On Monday, 10 members of the Electoral College, which votes next week to certify Trump’s victory, asked for a briefing on the intelligence communities’ finding of Russian meddling.
Ryan warned in his statement endorsing the probe against “exploiting the work of our intelligence community for partisan purposes,” saying it “does a grave disservice to those professionals and potentially jeopardizes our national security.”
Several congressional Republicans vowed to get to the bottom of Russia’s alleged involvement in the election.
“We will work in a bipartisan and uncompromising manner,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “As a former chief election official in Missouri, I would be most concerned by any effort to manipulate vote counting system.”
Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., chair of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, also endorsed an investigation but said it should be left to the chambers’ already existing committees.
“The House and Senate intelligence committees are both fully staffed and capable on their own to investigate,” Pittenger said. “If we get to the point that we’re not satisfied that an adequate investigation was done, you can certainly then appoint a select committee.”
Another North Carolina Republican, Rep. Walter Jones, said he favored the probe.
“We owe it to the American people to look into whether the Russians did hack into our elections to change the outcome,” he said. “If you believe that there’s been the slightest evidence of some foreign country hacking into the electoral process, then I hope that all of us, whether we be Republican or Democrat, we should do everything we can to find out if the process was tainted or not tainted.”
Sean Cockerham, Lindsay Wise, Lesley Clark, and Michael Doyle contributed to this report.