"The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, according to officials briefed on the matter.
"Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances."
Trump on Friday released a particularly tone-deaf statement, which will only feed suspicions about his affection for Vladimir Putin. "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," it read. "The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’" That he would adopt the Kremlin’s position in the face of overwhelming evidence, supported by U.S. intelligence professionals, is in and of itself of grave concern.
Former CIA director Michael Hayden, speaking on CNN, expressed astonishment. "To have the president-elect of the United States simply reject the fact-based narrative that the intelligence community puts together because it conflicts with his a priori assumptions. Wow," he said. "He continues to reject the Russians did it … and claims that it was politicized intelligence."
Following the president’s announcement on Friday that he ordered a "full review" of Russian hacking, the incoming Minority Leader Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., called for a full congressional review. Schumer is right that the bombshell should shake both parties to the core. But Republicans now must decide where their highest loyalties rest — with Trump or with the defense of the country and our electoral system.
The Post’s report provided an astonishing revelation: Republicans allegedly refused during the election to make a bipartisan defense of the sanctity of our electoral system. "According to several officials, (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics." The report continued: "Some of the Republicans in the briefing also seemed opposed to the idea of going public with such explosive allegations in the final stages of an election, a move that they argued would only rattle public confidence and play into Moscow’s hands."
Some Republicans in their narrow, partisan prism might think this is about trying to invalidate the election. It’s not. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told me, "The purpose of any investigation, whether by the Obama administration or Congress, is not to question or relitigate the results of any past or present presidential election." She explained, "Instead, any review must focus on the long-overdue task of improving the defenses of the United States against cyberattacks, including those that might seek to affect or influence political campaigns."
It’s also about determining the degree to which Russia tried to pick our president, why Russia picked Trump and whether Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was correct in declaring there had been extensive conversations with the Trump campaign, a charge the Trump team immediately rejected.
This sounds like an over-the-top spy thriller. Unfortunately, this is all too real and raises numerous troubling questions:
– Why did Russia want Trump to win?
– Why does Trump disagree with our intelligence community? Who is telling him its conclusion is wrong?
– Does the hacking have anything to do with the coterie of pro-Putin advisers around Trump? With Trump’s efforts to undermine NATO? With his desire to "get along" with Putin?
– Has Trump reportedly chosen Rex Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon (who has no national security experience), for secretary of state because Tillerson is cozy with Putin and opposed sanctions?
– What conversations, if any, went on between Trump’s campaign and Russians, and what was the substance of those?
– Does Trump have financial interests (or liabilities) with Russian oligarchs — which he is concealing by refusing to release his tax returns?
– Why did Republicans before the election refuse to stand up for the integrity of our electoral system?
Trump and his advisers would be well advised to let the investigations run their course without heckling, criticism or interference. Trump would also be smart to be entirely transparent about financial, political or personal ties he or his advisers may have with Russia. If he does not, speculation will run rampant that he has something to hide.
"Russia’s efforts to interfere in the U.S. elections are unprecedented in American history," Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told me. "Never before has technology allowed such widespread, semi-clandestine, and semi-deniable effects." He added, "Whether one thinks they swayed the outcome or not, whether Vladimir Putin thinks we try to do the same thing to influence elections in pro-democratic ways in countries like Ukraine or not, all Americans should be alarmed. And that puts it mildly."
The Senate must fly-speck Trump’s nominees, determine what their views on Russia are (and the basis for them) and get a clear understanding of what they will do in office to respond to Russia’s attempt to interfere with our electoral system. Any underqualified or unqualified nominee who appears unwilling to see Russia for what it is — an aggressive kleptocracy — should not be confirmed.