The scandal over Russian interference with the presidential election is growing. Over the weekend, the CIA released its assessment that Russia acted to intentionally aid Donald Trump’s campaign. Mr. Trump responded to the claim with an attack on the CIA.
The New York Times reported on Friday that American intelligence agencies had “high confidence” that Russia acted to harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This assessment was based on the finding that the Russians had hacked the Republican National Committee as well as the Democrats, but did not release stolen Republican documents to Wikileaks or other websites.
The report confirms earlier reports from August and September that the Republican Party had been hacked. The Hill reported in August that a number of leaked Republican emails had appeared on DC Leaks, a website connected to the Russian hacking of the Democratic Party. The Republican email trove did not appear to be complete. For example, some of the posted emails were responses to messages that did not appear elsewhere on the site.
President-elect Trump responded by calling the CIA assessment “ridiculous” according to the Wall Street Journal. The Trump camp had previously said, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” implying that the CIA assessment should not be trusted.
Intelligence officials fired back in a statement saying, “It’s concerning that intelligence on Russian actions related to the U.S. election is being dismissed out of hand as false or politically partisan. The inclination to ignore such intelligence and impugn the integrity of U.S. intelligence officials is contrary to all that is sacred to national-security professionals who work day and night to protect this country.”
Trump has continually denied a Russian connection to the hacked Democratic emails both during the campaign and after. This in spite of the fact that Trump publically called on Russia to find and publish Hillary’s deleted emails in July. However, when Vice President-elect Mike Pence was briefed on the alleged Russian involvement in October, Pence said on CNN, “I think there’s no question that the evidence continues to point in that direction. There should be severe consequences to Russia or any sovereign nation that is compromising the privacy or the security of the United States of America.”
The evidence that Russia was behind the hacking is not new. The new assessment deals largely with the apparent motives. The CIA and the FBI have not come to the same conclusion that the hacking was done to hurt the Clinton campaign according to CNN. However, both agencies suspected Russian involvement in the hacking as early as July.
Officials who were briefed by both agencies last week said that the FBI responses were “vague” and “ambiguous.” The difference may be partly differences in organizational culture. The CIA takes available evidence and gives an estimate while the FBI has to gather enough evidence to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt. The dated nature of the Republican documents that are known to have been stolen is also a factor in the FBI’s failure to totally agree with the CIA assessment that the leaks were intended to help Trump.
Concern about the hacking is bipartisan. Republican senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joined Democrats Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) to call for a congressional investigation into the hacking. “It’s pretty clear to me that WikiLeaks was designed to hurt Clinton and it could be us tomorrow, to my Republican friends,” Graham said to CNN. “What if the Iranians hack into Trump’s emails, because they don’t like him being tough? As a nation, this is not a partisan issue.”
Fox News noted that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.) appear to be backing a congressional investigation as well.
Speaker Paul Ryan stopped short of calling for an investigation, but expressed concern. “Speaker Ryan has said for months that foreign intervention in our elections is unacceptable,” Ryan’s spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, said in a statement to Politico. “The speaker cannot comment on or characterize the content of classified briefings but he rejects any politicization of intelligence matters.”
Many Republicans appear unconcerned about the hacking and view it as an excuse for the Clinton loss or an attempt to delegitimize the Trump Administration. John Bolton, who is reportedly Trump’s pick to be the second-in-command of the State Department, questioned Russia’s involvement on Fox News. Russian propaganda site, RT, framed Bolton’s doubts as an argument that the hacking was a “false flag” by President Obama although Bolton never made that claim.
Although there has so far been no evidence that the Trump campaign was complicit in the DNC hacking, there is concern about Mr. Trump’s cozy relationship with the Kremlin. Trump has appointed numerous Russia-friendly cabinet members and advisors, including Rex Tillerson, who is reportedly Trump’s pick to be Secretary of State, and the administration’s affinity for Putin may affect its policy.
Even before the election, the Trump campaign was instrumental in a pro-Russia change to the Republican platform. Since the Russian invasion of Crimea, the party had called for lethal aid to the Ukrainian army in its fight against Russian-backed militants. That provision was stripped at the request of the Trump campaign. Trump has even considered dropping the sanctions on Russia and recognizing Crimea as Russian territory.
Max Boot points out in USA Today that “Republicans would be sputtering in outrage, and with good reason” if the Russians had released GOP emails to help Hillary Clinton because they saw her as a friendly alternative. That fact is a clue about the right way to handle the intervention that benefitted Trump. Regardless of whether Republicans benefitted, investigators need to pursue the truth about the tampering with America’s election.