Commentary: On Russian hacking, it’s jump-to-conclusions vs. wait-and-see
President-elect Trump stirred yet more controversy Saturday night when, as he entered his New Year’s Eve party at Mar-a-Lago, he said he is not convinced the intelligence community is sure about allegations Russian hackers sought to influence the election.
“I just want them to be sure, because it’s a pretty serious charge,” Trump told reporters, “and I want them to be sure.”
The next morning, Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, scoffed at Trump’s statement. “This is the overwhelming judgment of the intelligence community and, frankly, all of the members of the intelligence committees in Congress, Democrats and Republicans,” Schiff said on ABC Sunday. “None of us have any question about this. The only one who does apparently is Donald Trump.”
That is not the case. There are, in fact, members of the intelligence committees who do have questions about this. Yes, many Republicans believe Russian hackers tried to mess with the U.S. presidential campaign in some way, mostly because they believe Russian hackers are always trying to mess with U.S. systems and institutions.
But when it comes to solid information on precisely what was done, and on evidence of motives, many Hill Republicans are mostly in the dark -- because the intelligence community has kept them there.
Remember that before Christmas the intelligence community refused to brief the House Intelligence Committee, telling lawmakers they can wait until intel officials finish the investigation ordered by President Obama. In response, House committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes argued that the Director of National Intelligence was “obligated to comply” with a House request, and that the committee was “deeply concerned” by the DNI’s “intransigence.”
The intelligence community’s response: Fuhgeddaboudit.
So the wait to learn more goes on. Meanwhile, a number of Democrats are arguing that the evidence is so overwhelming that Congress must establish a special investigating committee, even though there will already be multiple investigations of the Russia matter in the standing committees of Congress.
“Elections and the peaceful transfer of power are the foundational elements of our democracy,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “They have been attacked and undermined by the world’s most destabilizing major power.”
“An attack against our election system is an attack on our very way of life and must not go unchallenged,” added Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The argument is taking place in the context of deep distrust of the intelligence community among some Republicans. Some GOP lawmakers believe the IC has been -- to put it diplomatically -- less than forthcoming about Benghazi, intelligence concerning the Islamic State, and intel concerning Osama bin Laden. Already wary, they became more so when the IC refused to brief the House about the Russia affair.
There’s a greater context, as well. Many times during the campaign, Trump declared the Iraq War a “big, fat mistake.” At Mar-a-Lago, Trump referenced the intelligence debacle that led to the war. “If you look at the weapons of mass destruction, that was a disaster, and they were wrong,” Trump said. “And so I want them to be sure.”
Now, some of the same people who in 2002 and 2003 pushed for war based on erroneous intelligence -- Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham are two -- are pushing to take a hard line on Russia. It’s no surprise that some Republicans -- lawmakers who have no illusions about Russia and its hacking in the past -- want to see more evidence before going all-in on the new allegations. At the very least, they want to know what the intelligence community knows before signing off on a special congressional investigation of the hacking.
Trump is scheduled to meet with members of the Hill intelligence committees this week. “The president-elect needs to sit down with the heads of the intelligence communities ... and get a full briefing on what they knew, why they knew it, whether or not the Obama administration’s response was in proportion to the actions taken,” spokesman Sean Spicer said on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Trump himself is signaling there’s more to the story that he knows but the public doesn’t. “I know a lot about hacking,” he said Saturday night. “And hacking is a very hard thing to prove. So it could be somebody else. And I also know things that other people don’t know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation.”
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.