In the wake of President Obama’s retaliatory sanctions against Russia for hacking Democratic emails and attempting to influence the outcome of the Nov. 8 election, President-elect Donald Trump appears to be operating in a parallel universe from his GOP allies on Capitol Hill.
In a rare act of agreement with President Obama, influential GOP leaders, including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, agree with Obama on an important international policy action, even while complaining that tough U.S. action against Russian president Vladimir Putin was long overdue.
“Russia does not share American interests,” Ryan said in a statement Thursday after Obama ordered 35 members of the Russian diplomatic mission and their families to leave the country within 72 hours and closed two Russian diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland that are suspected of being spy nests. “In fact, it has consistently sought to undermine them, sowing dangerous instability around the world.”
McCain has repeatedly denounced Putin – the architect of the Russian annexation of Crimea and a close ally of the ruthless Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – as a “murderer” and “thug” whose global ambitions must be reined in. He recently joined with Graham and Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Jack Reed of Rhode Island in urging the creation of a Senate select committee on cyber that would focus not only Russian interference in U.S. politics but potential threats from other countries, including China and Iran.
Obama’s decision to crack down on the Russians, just three weeks before he leaves office, has had the effect of putting Trump and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill on a collision course that could sour intra-party relations. Throughout the campaign, Trump spoke with great admiration for Putin’s tough leadership style -- saying he was a much better leader than Obama – and vowed as president to improve relations with the Russian leader.
While Trump and GOP leaders managed to patch up many of their policy differences after the election, including immigration, the economy and trade, many Republican leaders view Putin as a major threat to U.S. interests throughout the world. This explains why some Republicans question Trump’s judgment in nominating Exxon-Mobil chair Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Tillerson has worked closely with Putin over the years in negotiating oil production contracts in Russia and like other business people was awarded The Russian Order of Friendship.
Henry Kissinger, speaking to the non-profit Committee of 100 on US-China relations, had another point of view. "As head of Exxon, it’s his job to get along with Russia. He would be useless as the head of Exxon if he did not have a working relationship with Russia. We should not think about these relationships as the personal relationships of individuals," Fortune magazine reported.
The U.S. intelligence community publicly blamed Russia in October for “interfering” in the U.S. election suggesting that Putin had a direct hand in the decision. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security then doubled-down on Thursday with samples of malware and other indicators of Russian cyber activity.
In a statement from Hawaii announcing his actions, Obama took a thinly veiled swipe at Trump for his seeming indifference and skepticism of the government’s charges against Russia, saying that “All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions.”
While many congressional Republicans are as outraged as their Democratic colleagues over Russia’s intervention in the election, Trump only slightly veered from his long-standing pose of nonchalance and skepticism.
Trump announced yesterday in West Palm Beach, Fla., that he would meet with U.S. intelligence officials next week “to be updated on the facts” in what will be one of his few intelligence briefings since winning the election.”
Trump from the start has dismissed concern about the hacking of Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign emails and their subsequent release by WikiLeaks as overblown and a way for Democrats to shift blame for losing the election. He said during a debate in September that the hacks could have been organized by “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
His primary concern, he has indicated, is repairing U.S. relations with Russia that he said reached rock-bottom during the Obama administration when Clinton served as secretary of state.
In his brief statement yesterday, Trump renewed his call for “our country to move on to bigger and better things,” but added that “in the interest of our country and its great people,” he would take the time to get an intelligence briefing.
Obama may have inadvertently done Trump a big favor by imposing sanctions against the Russians before he leaves office instead of leaving it to Trump to decide whether to take any action against Putin after he is sworn in Jan. 20. Trump could argue that his hands were tied and that he couldn’t readily repeal the sanctions without causing political upheaval within his own party.
But if Trump attempts to lift the sanctions on Russia next year after taking the helm at the White House, it could trigger a bitter fight within his own party that could spill over into other policy areas and even harm the prospects of winning Senate confirmation of Tillerson. It would also raise suspicion about his motives for reversing President’ Obama’s decision.
When it convenes next week, the new Republican-controlled Congress will loom as a major player in determining further U.S. action in response to the Russian cyber attack, notes Claude Barfield, a resident scholar with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute (AEI). There is mounting bipartisan support for a congressional investigation and possible further retaliatory action – regardless of what Trump says or threatens to do.
The only real dispute at this point is whether to create a special bipartisan committee with broad jurisdiction, as McCain, Graham and Schumer are pressing for, or allowing the Senate and House Intelligence Committees to handle the proceedings, as McConnell and Ryan are advocating.