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McConnell Backs Senate Investigations of Russian Hacking

McConnell's pronouncement puts him at odds with Trump, who has denounced any suggested that Russia attempted to steer the outcome of the election.
Image: Mitch McConnell speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Dec. 12, 2016.Susan Walsh / AP

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday he “condemns” Russian breaches of U.S. political organizations and supports Senate committees opening investigations into the matter.

McConnell's pronouncement puts him on the side of a bipartisan group of senators who are pushing for an investigation but at odds with some top Republicans in the House and with President-elect Donald Trump, who has denounced any suggestion that Russia attempted to steer the outcome of the presidential election.

“I agree with Senator Schumer, Chairman McCain, (Sen.) Burr and others, this simply cannot be a partisan issue,” McConnell said at a news conference on Capitol Hill.

He rejected the idea of an investigation done by a special committee set up specifically for the issue, a move that would elevate the issue to a higher priority and significance. Instead he said the committees with jurisdiction should have oversight.

McConnell said the Senate intelligence committee, chaired by Sen. Richard Burr, R- North Carolina, and the Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, should take the lead in looking into foreign breaches.

But in the House of Representatives, the top member on the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., indicated that he has no plans to open a specific investigation on Russian breaches. Nunes is close adviser to Trump and is a member of his transition team.

"At this time I do not see any benefit in opening further investigations, which would duplicate current committee oversight efforts and Intelligence Community inquiries," Nunes wrote in a statement.

House Speaker Paul Ryan didn't explicitly call for hearings on the latest CIA assessment over Russian hacks. Instead he pointed to the work that the House Intelligence Committee has been doing for a year on cyber security.

"This important work will continue and has my support," Ryan wrote in a statement.

Immediately after news broke Friday, first by the Washington Post, that the CIA believed that Russia hacked emails of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, McCain joined with three other senators in expressing deep concern over the intelligence findings.

Trump has said he does not believe Russia was the culprit of the DNC’s hacked and released emails, calling it “ridiculous” on Fox News Sunday. And on Monday he suggested that it is a conspiracy theory in a tweet.

McConnell, who was reportedly briefed on the breach before the November 8 election, refused to discuss his role during those briefings, but joined his fellow senators in condemning any Russian interference and defending U.S. intelligence agencies.

“Obviously any foreign breach of our cyber security measures is disturbing, and I strongly condemn any such efforts,” he said, adding that he has the “highest confidence in the intelligence community."

Related: U.S. Publicly Blames Russia for Hacking

McCain said that the purpose of the congressional investigations should be to determine if breaches were done to influence the outcome of the election.

"The question is, of course, what was the intention and that’s why we need an investigation," McCain said on Fox News Monday. The Armed Services Committee plans to create a new subcommittee to address cyberattacks.

While both the DNC and the RNC systems were broken into, only the emails of the DNC were released to the public.

Incoming Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said "we welcome" McConnell's support of a Senate investigation "so that we can find out how this happened, and how we can stop it from happening ever again."

McConnell refused to comment on if the breach impacted Trump's win. And he also refused to comment on Trump’s defense of Russia, saying he would only give his own view: “The Russians are not our friends.”

However, he also sounded a note of caution about any partisan attempts to use intelligence gathered on hacks to interfere in the election's outcome.

"Any intervention by Russia is especially problematic because, under President Putin, Russia has been an aggressor that consistently undermines American interests," Ryan said Monday in a statement. "At the same time, exploiting the work of our intelligence community for partisan purposes does a grave disservice to those professionals and potentially jeopardizes our national security. As we work to protect our democracy from foreign influence, we should not cast doubt on the clear and decisive outcome of this election."

A member of House Democratic leadership, Rep, Linda Sanchez of California, said Monday that Congress should stop funding the GOP-spearheaded investigation into the deadly 2012 attacks by militants on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.

Sanchez said Congress should redirect that money to investigate the Russian hacks instead, adding in a statement that "ensuring the legitimacy of our electoral system must be our main concern."

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid doubled down on his criticism of FBI Director James Comey on Saturday and accused the agency head of withholding information about Russia’s alleged attempts to meddle in the 2016 election. Reid, who is retiring, told MSNBC Comey should be investigated.

“The FBI had this material for a long time but … Comey, who’s of course a Republican, refused to divulge this information,” Reid told MSNBC. “… He has let the country down for partisan purposes.”

McConnell also refused to comment on the pending appointment of Exxon Mobile CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, a candidate who has close ties to Russia through the oil and gas business. McConnell said he hopes all in the new administration "share my view" but won't comment on a "phantom nominee."