At this point, most people in Washington believe that there was a Kremlin-sponsored effort to interfere in the election by hacking the computer systems of, among others, the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. The problem for Republicans is that their incoming president isn’t one of them.
Despite the unanimous assessment of the 16 agencies that comprise the U.S. Intelligence Community, President-elect Donald Trump has continued to say that he doesn’t believe Russia was involved in any sort of hacking, and has accused the agencies of playing politics.
His efforts to cast doubt on the intelligence agencies’ findings only intensified over the weekend, after The New York Times reported that the Central Intelligence Agency is confident that the Russian effort was aimed specifically at helping Trump win the election, and not just an attempt to undermine confidence in U.S. elections. (It should be noted that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has agreed with the finding that the hacks were sponsored by Russia, has said that it does not have enough evidence to impute a motive to the Kremlin.)
In a remarkable attempt to rewrite history, the president-elect on Monday morning tweeted, “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?”
The first claim, according to computer forensics experts, is patently false. But Trump’s demanding to know why the issue of Russian hacking wasn’t brought up before the election is a bit like asking, “Why didn’t the sun come up last Wednesday?”
That’s because it was brought up before the election. Repeatedly. On a daily basis, in fact, all through the summer and fall. It was even brought up by Clinton, during a televised debate, with Trump standing right next to her. (The occasion of the president-elect’s meme-worthy “No puppet! No puppet! You’re the puppet!” response.)
Trump’s denial -- and now the suggestion among some prominent Trump supporters that the whole hacking episode was a “false flag” operation possibly conducted by the U.S. government itself -- has put congressional Republicans in a tough spot.
Republicans are facing the first opportunity in more than a decade to enjoy unified control of the legislative and executive branches of government. Pursuing an investigation of an attack that Trump claims never happened could take the focus off things like Obamacare repeal and tax reform.
If an investigation confirms the Intelligence Community’s assessment, it could delegitimize the president that they are hoping to work with for the next four years. And given Trump’s demonstrated ability to hold a grudge and his willingness to retaliate if he believes he has been wronged, it could poison the relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill.
To top it all off, it could conceivably cost Trump his reported pick for secretary of state, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson. A Tillerson nomination is already seen as potentially problematic, due in large part to his relationship with Vladimir Putin. Several key Republicans in Congress are already signaling their concerns. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) tweeted on Sunday, "Being a 'friend of Vladimir' is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState."
The result of all this is a mishmash of positions among top GOP leaders.
On Sunday morning, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who chairs the Judiciary Committee’s Crime and Terrorism panel, joined Democrats in calling for a thorough investigation.
“Recent reports of Russian interference in our election should alarm every American. 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 cyber-attacks,” they said in a joint statement.
However, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, tweeted, “All this ‘news’ of Russian hacking: it has been going on for years. Serious, but hardly news.”
On Monday, though, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he “strongly condemn[s]” the Russian hacking and has the highest confidence in U.S. intelligence services. He said it “defies belief” that Republicans in Congress would not want to investigate the matter. However, he resisted the call to appoint an independent commission, saying that he believes the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is capable of conducting the inquiry.
On the other side of the Capitol, House Speaker Paul Ryan appeared to want to have things both ways, issuing a statement in which he strongly condemned Russia but fell short of calling for an investigation.
“We must condemn and push back forcefully against any state-sponsored cyberattacks on our democratic process ... As I’ve said before, 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. At the same time, exploiting the work of our intelligence community for partisan purposes does a grave disservice to those professionals and potentially jeopardizes our national security. As we work to protect our democracy from foreign influence, we should not cast doubt on the clear and decisive outcome of this election.”
It wasn’t long before it became clear which approach Team trump favors. In an interview, Trump spokesman Jason Miller was asked specifically about McConnell’s decision to support an investigation.
“I think really clearly that what this is is an attempt to delegitimize President-elect Trump’s win,” Miller said.