Democrats to Investigate Trump’s Campaign Ties to Putin
With growing signs that Russia meddled in the U.S. election, lawmakers want to expose any coordination between Trump and the Kremlin during the campaign.
Senior U.S. Democrats and a handful of Republicans demanded an investigation into whether the Russian government directly meddled in last month’s American elections to help President-elect Donald Trump — a charge that could influence the upcoming Electoral College vote.
The calls for a probe, spurred by incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, followed explosive new reports of a U.S. intelligence assessment that concluded hackers served as middlemen for Moscow to boost Trump’s chances over Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. If true, the intelligence undercuts the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency, especially as he seeks warming relations with Russia.
A House Intelligence Committee member told Foreign Policy that congressional Democrats who want to declassify the intelligence assessment also will push to investigate whether Moscow directly coordinated with the Trump campaign during the election.
The accusation that the Russian government was directly interacting with Trump was first leveled by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid during the height of the presidential campaign. In October, Reid harangued FBI Director James Comey for not disclosing details of alleged coordination he said was in the FBI’s possession. “The public has a right to know this information,” he wrote.
U.S. officials on Saturday said there was no evidence so far that indicated coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, or that Moscow’s meddling included manipulating of ballot counting or voting machines.
Still, a Democratic leadership aide said Senate Democrats would “absolutely” be seeking more information on pre-election coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.
First reported Friday by the Washington Post, the secret intelligence assessment would contradict previous official U.S. statements that Russia sought to merely undermine confidence in the U.S. election process. Intelligence agencies have since reportedly identified people linked to the Russian government who are believed to have supplied WikiLeaks with emails hacked from Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and the Democratic National Committee. Notably, many emails hacked from Republican organizations were not released to the public.
On Sunday, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham joined Democrats in calling for a full, bipartisan investigation of Russia’s activities.
Trump quickly refuted the reported assessment of Russia intervening on his behalf, and suggested the intelligence community he would soon lead as president was not trustworthy.
“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the Trump transition team said in a terse statement.
Trump’s mocking of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment threatened to spoil relations with the very threat analysts any president must rely on for updates regarding national security.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, scolded Trump for “impugn[ing] the tens of thousands of Americans who are at work every day of the year, many in great physical danger, to protect us.”
A former senior intelligence official told FP that Trump’s broadside, while ill-advised, was unlikely to dramatically jeopardize the president-elect’s relationship with the nation’s spies.
“The CIA, unfortunately, is used to being caught in the middle of fights among politicians and will soldier on professionally,” said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We don’t yet know exactly what the CIA report said and with what level of confidence, but the Trump team should have taken more time to examine the issue before firing back — and all Americans should want someone to get to the bottom of whatever the Russians were up to.”
Though the uproar over the CIA’s assessment largely drew statements of disapproval from Democrats, some Republicans also expressed concern.
“I’m not challenging the outcome of the election, but very concerned about Russian interference/actions at home & throughout the world,” Graham (R-S.C.) said Saturday on Twitter.
The new reports could — although are unlikely to — affect the outcome of the Electoral College vote on Dec. 19, and stoked momentum for a group of anti-Trump electors who are trying to convince fellow delegates to throw the election to the House of Representatives.
Chris Suprun, a Texas delegate, told FP he has been feverishly working the phones to convince electors committed to Trump to switch their votes when the college meets to cast their ballots and formalize the Republican’s presidency.
“Donald Trump fails the basic test of fitness for office,” said Suprun, who represents a state that Trump won. “My job is get electors not see themselves as rubber stamps for the Kremlin. …The founders gave us the tools to make sure that we don’t make a bad decision.”
Suprun would not say how many electors he believes will switch their votes but said the reported Russian interference has sparked a wave of calls from his fellow delegates. Suprun and his allies need 37 electors committed to Trump to change their votes and throw the election to the House.
There, the Republican majority would likely ensure Trump’s victory but could still, in theory, keep him from prevent taking office. In turn, that would spark a constitutional crisis, and Suprun said his attempts to convince electors to switch their votes have resulted in death threats against him and his family.
In October, the New York Times reported that the FBI did not find any conclusive or direct evidence linking Trump to the Russian government. At the time, Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson refused to provide any details of what the Senate Democratic leader demanded the FBI investigate.
Notably, the FBI has refused to publicly endorse the CIA’s assessment on the election. The intelligence community rarely splits on high-level assessments. But debate and even disagreement among the agencies is encouraged — precisely to avoid another disastrous “slam-dunk” pronouncement like the one in 2002 that led the U.S. into the Iraq War.
As director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2013, now-retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn frequently served as a main voice of dissent in the intelligence community, and occasionally publicly disputed assessments. At the time, he described DIA intelligence as highly reliable and “a little more aggressive,” given military officials were far closer to ground-level conflict information than were other intelligence analysts in Washington and at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
Flynn is now preparing to become Trump’s national security advisor — and could very well retain his skepticism of CIA analysis in favor of intelligence that is gleaned closer to the source.
The new controversy over Russia comes as Trump appeared close to nominating ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. A person close to the Trump transition team confirmed to FP that Tillerson is the likely pick and that former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton would serve as his deputy secretary of state.
Though seen as a successful head of the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company, Tillerson does not have any previous government or diplomatic experience. He does have close business ties to Russia — a fact Democrats would likely seize upon during confirmation hearings.
Throughout the campaign, Trump praised Putin as a “stronger leader” than Obama, and promoted the idea of working with Russia to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, Flynn appeared many times on the Kremlin-funded broadcaster RT.
John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll