President-elect Donald Trump’s broadside against the intelligence community is dividing Capitol Hill Republicans, with some ready to pounce on Trump’s skepticism that Russia interfered with the U.S. elections and others urging a more cautious approach.
The resulting schism could widen as Congress begins probing the CIA’s charges that Russia intervened in the November elections in an attempt to help Trump, potentially becoming one of the first significant intraparty breaches of the Trump presidency.
U.S. critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), want to go full-bore on holding Russia to account for its suspected election interference. But they may be slowed by GOP senators who prefer to wait to hear the intelligence community’s evidence and for Trump to be installed in the White House.
When asked whether he would be influenced by Trump’s Tuesday tweet about a supposedly delayed “Intelligence” briefing on “so-called” Russian hacking, McCain said flatly, “No.”
McCain will hold a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday on “foreign cyber threats” that is expected to center on Russia. Intelligence officials — including Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Marcel J. Lettre II and U.S. Cyber Command and National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers — will testify, and some Republicans are hoping they will present evidence that Russia meddled in the elections.
“The point of this hearing is to have the intelligence community reinforce, from their point of view, that the Russians did this,” Graham said. “You seem to have two choices now — some guy living in an embassy, on the run from the law for rape, who has a history of undermining American democracy and releasing classified information to put our troops at risk, or the 17 intelligence agencies sworn to defend us. I’m going with them.”
Graham was referring to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder accused of helping Russia leak emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee. He has few fans in Congress — on Wednesday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) called Assange a “sycophant for Russia.”
Assange has denied he received leaked emails from the Russians. Trump echoed Assange in a tweet Tuesday in which he said “a 14-year-old could have hacked Podesta,” referring to Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chairman, John Podesta. Trump also tweeted support for Assange’s comment that the media is “dishonest.”
Assange’s first claim may be narrowly accurate — Russia’s intelligence services used middlemen to deliver the purloined files, said senior U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. But U.S. spy agencies are in full agreement that Russia directed the hacking and orchestrated email dumps to WikiLeaks to help Trump win — a finding at the heart of a classified assessment completed this week.
Trump’s online endorsement of Assange is his latest insult to the U.S. intelligence community and is likely to intensify the antagonism between the president-elect and U.S. spy agencies. He has repeatedly disparaged their work and skipped most of the daily briefings prepared for a future White House occupant.
CIA veterans said the level of open hostility is extraordinary. “I can’t think of any transition during my career as seemingly fraught as this one,” said John Rizzo, the CIA’s former acting general counsel.
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