Trump Has Republicans Squirming on Russia

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Trump Has Republicans Squirming on Russia
Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
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The honeymoon between Donald Trump and congressional Republicans was only going to last a while before Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened, and the president-elect’s repeated denials of Russia’s cyber meddling in the election have hastened the first painful test for GOP hawks.

Trump’s pro-Russia stance took center stage last week, forcing fellow Republicans into an untenable position -- defy him or downplay their alarm over Putin’s success influencing our presidential election. The quandary was on full display Sunday during Sen. John McCain’s interview on CNN as he insisted there is “no doubt” the Russians interfered in the election, and called for a select committee to investigate. While McCain said that “this is serious business -- if they’re able to harm the electoral process, they may destroy democracy, which is based on free and fair elections,” he also strained to avoid criticizing Trump’s dismissal of the cyber attack.

Last week McCain raised concerns over Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon-Mobil to whom Putin has bestowed the “Order of Friendship,” award, saying: "Frankly, I would never accept an award from Vladimir Putin because then you kind of give some credence and credibility to this butcher, this KGB agent, which is what he is.” It’s far easier to attack Putin, however, than to defend Trump’s rejection of intelligence he was briefed on months ago.

Indeed, Trump has been contemptuous of the intelligence community he is set to rely upon as commander-in-chief, calling the revelations “ridiculous” and accusing intelligence officials of working on the Democrats’ behalf. “I think the Democrats are putting it out because they suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics in this country,” Trump told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.”

Privately some Republicans now concede that by undermining our intelligence agencies, and dismissing the Russian cyber threat, Trump is doing Putin’s work for him.  Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said this week that what has already occurred -- any disruption, division and debate over our election -- is a victory for Putin.

Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community prompted a rebuke from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said he had “the highest confidence in the intelligence community, and especially the Central Intelligence Agency.” He added a warning about Russia as well: “Let me just speak for myself: The Russians are not our friends. I think we ought to approach all of these issues on the assumption the Russians do not wish us well.”

While McConnell has agreed that an investigation is in order, he did not endorse a single, select committee, as McCain has. In a bipartisan call for such a probe, McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham joined with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Jack Reed, the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee -- but McConnell and his counterpart, House Speaker Paul Ryan, refused. Ryan instead issued a statement that said such cyber meddling was “especially problematic because under President Putin, Russia has been an aggressor that consistently undermines American interests.”

There is no question, had Russia leaked Trump’s tax returns and he lost the election,  that the outcry from all Republicans would be unequivocal. But GOP leaders chose to ignore the cyber threat, former Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin said last week. “They knew during the campaign this was happening and they chose not to say anything because they knew it would harm them politically,” the former CIA operations officer, who was chief policy director for Republicans in the House, said at a Politico breakfast.

Indeed, in the face of intelligence information that both he and Trump have been briefed on since August, Vice President-elect Mike Pence has gone silent. In October, however, he affirmed Russia’s complicity, saying there was “no question the evidence continues to point in that direction,” adding that “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.”

As long as Trump withholds his tax returns, speculation will continue over whether he’s indebted to Russians, who helped finance his projects long after his bankruptcies lead American banks to stop lending to him.  After the election, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said officials there have had ongoing talks with Team Trump, which they deny. At the GOP convention in July, Trump’s allies quashed a proposal in the platform calling for arming Ukraine to defend against Russia. Trump has indicated he is open to lifting sanctions on Russia, and to recognizing Russian Crimea. News reports have outlined his business interests in Russia along with developments elsewhere that are financed by Russian investors. Donald Trump Jr. said in 2008: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Trump, working on a deal in Moscow in 2013, told Real Estate Weekly: “The Russian market is attracted to me. ... I have a great relationship with many Russians, and almost all of the oligarchs were in the room.”

The question of how much Trump will accommodate Putin and Russia should dominate the confirmation hearings for Tillerson, who is on record opposing sanctions. Graham, who said months ago that Trump’s view of Putin “unnerves me to my core,” is calling for “crippling” new sanctions for Russia and said if Tillerson does not acknowledge Russian interference in the election and support new sanctions, “it will be very hard for me to vote for him because you’re giving a green light for this behavior.”

The question is not whether Tillerson will be confirmed, because by all indications he will. But it will be in those deliberations that Senate Republicans can at least push for answers. Those who retreat for fear of crossing Trump may regret it later -- should his reset fail as badly as the ones Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama attempted.

Critics of Putin can stand up for what they believe in, or they can sit down for Trump. It’s on them.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist.

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