Does anyone disagree? I assume not, but it’s hard to tell from social media this morning. A lot of right-wing reaction to last night’s WaPo and NYT stories seems to be either (a) the left is in no position to lecture about getting tough on Putin after condoning Obama’s weakness towards Russia over the past eight years or (b) even if Russia meddled in the campaign on Trump’s behalf by leaking hacked material to Wikileaks, that doesn’t prove he wouldn’t have won the election anyway. Both of those points are correct. What’s that got to do, though, with whether or not this is a gravely serious infringement on U.S. sovereignty and something that the country’s representatives should investigate aggressively? As Rick Wilson said, what would be happening today in an alternate reality where the CIA claimed that Russia had intervened to try to help President-elect Hillary Clinton? Ryan and McConnell would want to dig into that, no doubt over the screaming objections of many a left-wing hack. But they’d be right to do it in that case. And if they’re right to do it there, they’re right to do it here.
The only objection I’ve seen to holding hearings that’s grounded in the merits, rather than pure “but this might embarrass Trump!” partisanship, is the idea this is all based on nothing more than some random unnamed source whispering to the Washington Post. Er, no. Read the Post story. They have multiple sources, and there have been at least two rounds of intelligence briefings to key members of Congress already.
The CIA shared its latest assessment with key senators in a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill last week, in which agency officials cited a growing body of intelligence from multiple sources. Agency briefers told the senators it was now “quite clear” that electing Trump was Russia’s goal, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
The CIA presentation to senators about Russia’s intentions fell short of a formal U.S. assessment produced by all 17 intelligence agencies. A senior U.S. official said there were minor disagreements among intelligence officials about the agency’s assessment, in part because some questions remain unanswered.
That was the most recent briefing. There was another in mid-September, before the election, involving James Comey, DHS head Jeh Johnson, and Obama advisor Lisa Monaco meeting with congressional leaders and members of the House and Senate intel committees:
In a secure room in the Capitol used for briefings involving classified information, administration officials broadly laid out the evidence U.S. spy agencies had collected, showing Russia’s role in cyber-intrusions in at least two states and in hacking the emails of the Democratic organizations and individuals…
The Democratic leaders in the room unanimously agreed on the need to take the threat seriously. Republicans, however, were divided, with at least two GOP lawmakers reluctant to accede to the White House requests.
According to several officials, 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 Times also has multiple “senior administration officials” who claim that U.S. intelligence has concluded with “high confidence,” their greatest degree of certainty, that Russia acted covertly to promote Trump and harm Clinton. Likewise, they have “high confidence” that the RNC was hacked by Russia too but that none of the pilfered material from that intrusion has been released (yet). That conclusion is disputed, though: A different source, who was briefed by the FBI, told the Times that Russia tried to hack the RNC but failed. (The RNC claims this too.) That’s another reason to hold hearings, to find out why the FBI’s assessment diverges from other intelligence bureaus’ on that question.
A Twitter pal suggested that a congressional investigation should also consider why this material is being “strategically leaked” now and what can be done to stop intelligence agencies from whispering to the media going forward. Sure, that’s fair game, but as far as the timing goes, what would have been a better time? If this had leaked before the election, it would have been attacked as a transparent attempt by anti-Trump intel officials to game the outcome. (Per the excerpt above, Mitch McConnell was already prepared to make that argument.) If the material leaked next year after Trump was sworn in, it would be attacked as a transparent attempt to create a distracting crisis for Trump in his first days in office. Leaking during the transition period may have been the least politically charged moment to do it. As for the necessity of the leak, you can form that judgment for yourself. Should the public be alerted if the country’s spy agencies detect an attempt by an enemy to influence its choice of the next president, and if so, by whom? Would congressional Republicans who were briefed have shared that information with the public, knowing the political headache it could create for Trump? If congressional Democrats had shared it, wouldn’t it have been dismissed and ignored by many as partisan politics and sour grapes over the election result? The intel leakers may have spilled it in the belief that that was the only quasi-neutral way to get the information out, in the hope/expectation that it would trigger bipartisan congressional hearings — which it should. And if it turns out in the hearings that the evidence here is thin and it seems the IC really did try to cook something up simply to damage Trump, then all the more reason to have held those hearings. If there’s an element in U.S. intelligence trying to smear the incoming president, we need to know that ASAP and act.
Various Republicans, from Mike McCaul to Devin Nunes to John McCain, have said in the past that it’s worth holding hearings to explore the intelligence on Russian interference (although Nunes sounded skeptical of the intel when WaPo interviewed him about it). I wonder if they’re still as eager after seeing this statement from Trump about the intel findings last night:
“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the transition said in a terse, unsigned statement.
“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.'”
“Time to move on.” That’ll be an early test of how much spine congressional Republicans can muster in standing up to Trump. If they can’t risk spending a few days questioning intelligence officials about their considered assessment that a U.S. enemy was trying to tilt the election because they’re afraid it’ll make Trump mad, they’re finished institutionally. Trump will own them for the next four years. As for Trump himself, he must have a head injury to blithely dismiss something like this with a “WUT ABOUT WMD?” burn. The IC will be his eyes and ears in less than two months and he’s telling you here, up front, that they’re not worth believing. Between this and him blowing off many of his daily intel briefings, he seems to have zero confidence in the information being given to him. If he’s convinced that U.S. intelligence is inherently untrustworthy then he should “drain the swamp” by dismantling the CIA and rebuilding a new intel bureau from the ground up. Although … now that I think about that, creating a new spy agency that owes its existence to a strongman president seems like a uniquely terrible idea.
Here’s former RNC spokesman Sean Spicer, a favorite to be the new White House press secretary, insisting that they have proof that Russia never hacked the RNC but that the Times wasn’t interested in seeing that before it published its story last night. I hope for everyone’s sake that he’s right. If Putin has “kompromat” that can be used to undermine Trump’s administration, he’s going to use it.