WASHINGTON (CNN) — A leading Republican lawmaker is calling for investigations into alleged Russian cyberhacks during the US election despite President-elect Donald Trump’s repeated calls for warmer ties with Moscow.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and one of the chamber’s most experienced foreign policy hands, said the attempt by a foreign country to interfere with the US voting process needs better understanding and a vigorous response.
“Assuming for a moment that we do believe that the Russian government was controlling outside organizations that hacked into our election, they should be punished,” Graham told reporters Tuesday. Referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Graham added that, “Putin should be punished.”
Graham, who wants the hearings to examine all Russia’s “misadventures throughout the world,” has the support of colleagues on both sides of the aisle. As other Republicans issued warnings about Russian activities, the hearings could become a source of tension between the GOP and the new President.
“You could see, going forward, a Congress that’s really at loggerheads with the White House on policy toward Russia,” said Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University.
Graham, who ran against Trump in the Republican primaries, admitted that “clearly Donald and me have issues.” But he added that he’ll do “everything I can to help him because he will be commander in chief in dangerous times.”
Russia, Graham said, is a “bad actor.”
To that end, Graham said hearings into Russia’s activities should also address Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and interference in Ukraine, its cyberattacks against US allies, and examine whether Russia is guilty of war crimes due to its intervention and bombing campaign in Syria.
Splits on Russia
There have been splits on Russia in the past between Trump and fellow Republicans. GOP lawmakers have long called for the US to arm Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed rebels in the eastern part of the country. But the Trump campaign stripped that language from the Republican platform before the party’s national convention in July, angering some lawmakers.
The intelligence assessment about Russian hacking during the election highlighted an even more dramatic split between Trump and many in his party.
In an October 7 statement, the US intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security announced they were “confident that the Russian Government directed” the theft of emails from US institutions including the Democratic National Committee and individuals, including Democratic campaign officials.
Those emails were later leaked by groups such as WikiLeaks, DCLeaks.com and the online persona Guccifer 2.0.
Yet during the campaign, Trump said he didn’t accept the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia was behind the hack, suggesting instead that it “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said early classified assessments he saw were inconclusive.
“But do I personally think Russia’s somewhere in the mix? Yes.” Corker said he was “all for more fully understanding what happened” through hearings.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, the vice-presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket with Hillary Clinton, said the investigation would be well worth it.
“It’s really important to know what a foreign government was trying to do to influence this election,” Kaine said.
‘Stop it from happening again’
“Just the knowledge that it happened isn’t the same as knowing everything about how it happened,” Kaine said. “Knowing how it happened can help everybody protect themselves, a lot of insight can come from that. It can stop it from happening again.”
In Russia, there’s a widespread sense that Trump’s election will bolster ties with the US, leading to better trade and economic relations and perhaps the easing of sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Trump has repeatedly praised Putin as a strong leader and speaks of the need for better relations with Moscow. Putin was one of the earliest leaders to congratulate Trump on his victory, and has said he wants to improve relations with the US.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday “we should put as much faith in such statements as any other made by a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbors, threatened America’s allies, and attempted to undermine America’s elections.”
Graham urged Republicans not get sidetracked by the fact that the hacks may have helped their party. His fellow GOP lawmakers shouldn’t “let allegations against a foreign government interfering in our election process go unanswered because it may have been beneficial to our cause,” he said.