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New Congress worries Trump could weaken efforts to counter Russian influence

In the weeks after Donald Trump won the election, there has been growing friction between the president-elect and a bipartisan grouping in Congress over how the new administration will handle Russia, specifically the allegations that Moscow used cyber espionage to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.

As the new Congress was sworn in today, multiple efforts are underway to investigate Russian cyber activity, and potentially implement new sanctions. Despite the concerns from Capitol Hill, Trump continues to question the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community, which determined back in October that the hacking of Democratic officials and networks was directed by Russia and went to the highest levels of the Russian government.

At a New Year's Eve celebration at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Trump told reporters that the intelligence community may have gotten it wrong, emphasizing that he knows "a lot about hacking" and "it could be somebody else" who penetrated the Democratic party's networks. Trump went on to say, "I also know things that other people don't know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation." What kind of information Trump has on Russian cyber activities during the election is not at all clear, but the president-elect said the public would "find out on Tuesday or Wednesday."

The renewed focus on Russia follows President Barack Obama's December 29 executive action to impose new economic sanctions and expel 35 Russian diplomats in connection to malicious cyber activity used during the election to "undermine democratic processes or institutions." When asked to comment on the actions by the outgoing administration, Trump told reporters, "I think we ought to get on with our lives.”

The dismissive tone struck by the incoming president has brought together some strange bedfellows on Capitol Hill, with congressmen on the left and the right pushing for rigorous investigations and tough sanctions on Russia for allegedly meddling in the democratic process. Russian officials have repeatedly rejected claims that they interfered in the U.S. election, arguing there has not been sufficient evidence brought forward to prove American allegations.

On Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) will hold the first in a series of hearings to investigate threats to U.S. cyber security, hearings that will inevitably intersect the alleged Russian election interference. The committee will hear from the director of the National Security Agency (NSA), Adm. Mike Rogers, and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper on America's vulnerabilities in the cyber domain and how to shore up its defenses.

But one investigation is not sufficient, according to McCain, who is working with a bipartisan group of senators to get additional resources devoted to the issue. In mid-December, McCain, was joined by senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the new Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) in calling for a Select Committee on Cyber, specifically devoted to improving America's cyber defenses against foreign adversaries like Russia.

"We want to find out what the Russians are doing to our political system and what other foreign governments might do to our political system. And then figure out a way to stop it," Schumer said last month after adding his name to the letter. He argued that "only a select committee can do it."

The letter was in response to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who rejected the idea of a special committee, saying the Intelligence Committee could effectively investigate the issue, even though as many as four Senate committees have jurisdiction over cyber security. It is also possible that McConnell was hoping to avoid an immediate confrontation with Trump administration on an issue the president-elect has dismissed as "ridiculous."

McCain is not backing off. He told reporters on Tuesday that, "Right now we have no policy and no strategy to counter cyber attacks. There is none from this administration. One of them has to be developed." When asked if he was concerned that some Republicans may try to block his efforts and shield Trump from having to make tough decisions on Russia, McCain emphasized, "I have never been concerned about doing the right thing."

McCain will also be adding his name to legislation drafted by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) that would lock in tougher economic measures to counter Russia. Cardin told reporters on Tuesday that the new legislation "will provide congressional authorization for additional sanctions against Russia."

As it stands, Trump will be in a position on January 20 to roll back existing sanctions against Russia that Obama imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014. At the time, Congress passed a bill pledging support to the government of Ukraine and calling for tough economic sanctions that, if enacted, could only be repealed by an act of Congress. Obama held off the congressional sanctions, choosing instead to levy executive sanctions, which can now be repealed under a new president.

Congressman Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was asked what it would mean if Trump decided to lift Obama's sanctions. He explained, "It would make it appear to some that he welcomed Russian interference into our elections, as long as it was helpful to him."

Even though he truly believes the majority of his Republican colleagues do not want to give Moscow "a free hand" to meddle in American politics, he wants to see the House take up an investigation and impose harsher costs on Russia.

"The sanctions we've imposed so far are way too modest and we have got to do others that have a real effect on the Russian economy," Sherman argued.

Trump has hinted numerous times on the campaign trail that he would be open to repealing economic sanctions on Russia. Asked at a July press conference whether he would consider recognizing Crimea as a part of Russia and undoing the sanctions, Trump replied that his team "would be looking into that."

Trump's transition team was also critical of President Obama's new sanctions last week, with incoming White House counselor Kellyanne Conway insisted that Obama's last minute measures were intended to "'box in' President-elect Trump." Incoming press secretary Sean Spicer argued on CNN that the current White House was "irresponsible" for imposing the sanctions before publishing the conclusions of a report documenting the evidence of Russia's alleged impact on the 2016 election.

Former CIA director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Sinclair Broadcast Group on Tuesday that if Trump were to reverse Obama's executive actions on Russia, "It would send exactly the wrong message to the rest of the world."

If Trump were to reverse course on Russia and maintain the sanctions, Panetta said, "I think it would send a terrible signal, because it would indicate that somehow the United States would be tolerant of that kind of behavior. And that would be a huge mistake."

For Panetta, the conclusions from the intelligence community clearly show that Russia has engaged in cyber espionage against the United States during the election. "I think whether you're a Democrat or Republican, you recognize that we can't allow a country like Russia to engage in that kind of behavior," he said, adding, "I hope the Trump administration recognizes ultimately that they have to support some kind of investigation."

Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) of the House Intelligence Committee raised a significant concern about how business interests could cloud the president-elect's assessment of the Russia threat, and push him to repeal the sanctions.

When Obama imposed two rounds of sanctions against Russia in 2014, it froze Russian assets in the United States and blocked American companies from working with certain Russian companies, particularly in oil and gas exploration.

Speier warned that "at the time when the sanctions were imposed, Exxon was in the process of doing a deal in Russia. And as you know, the nominee for Secretary of State [Rex Tillerson] is the president of Exxon, so this becomes a huge issue."

Despite concerns over how Trump will deal with Moscow, a number of leading Republicans do not see as much distance between the incoming administration and the rank and file of the party.

In an Monday interview with the Washington Examiner, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) supported Trump's criticism of the intelligence community, saying, "There's no proof that we have from intelligence sources that I've seen that show that the Russians were directly trying to help Trump."

Incoming Republican Whip, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), indicated on Tuesday that contrary to appearances, the Trump administration will be even tougher on Russia than Obama.

"One of the things we want to see is strong leadership for America, and that's why we're excited about Donald Trump's approach to foreign policy," Scalise explained. "You've seen Russia run roughshod over the United States these last few years." While Barack Obama's approach to Moscow allowed Russia to expand its influence throughout Europe and other parts of the world, Scalise argued, "Trump has made it clear he is going to be a strong leader and that what we need in America."

The committee investigations are already getting started this week and Trump could find himself faced with a new sanctions bill from Capitol Hill as soon as he takes his seat in the Oval Office. Or congressional leadership could form a bulwark and shield the president-elect from having to take a strong position on Russia so soon into his presidency.


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