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Trump Adviser Claims Russia 'Did Not Succeed' in Swaying Election as GOP Senators Urge Further Retaliation

Sen. Lindsey Graham said it would 'shake me to my core' about Donald Trump's judgment if he refused to accept the intelligence community's findings.
Image: Republican Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) and John McCain (R-AZ)
Republican Sens. John McCain, left, and Lindsey Graham last year in Washington, D.C.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

A top adviser said Sunday that President-elect Donald Trump wouldn't commit to further punishing Russia for its interference in the U.S. election — even as two of the most prominent Republican senators and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said there needed to be stronger retaliation.

"When he becomes president, after January 20, and he meets with his security and intelligence team, he, as President Trump, will make a decision on what to do in many different areas of the world," Kellyanne Conway, who will assume the title of counselor to the president in the White House, said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Conway repeatedly emphasized that the intelligence community, in investigating Russia's efforts to undermine the election, never said outright that the Russian efforts were successful.

"They did not succeed. They did not succeed to embarrassing this country on the world stage," she said.

The declassified version of the intelligence report, which was released Friday, doesn't assess whether Russia's efforts succeeded.

It does state, however, that "the Russian intelligence services would have seen their election influence campaign as at least a qualified success because of their perceived ability to impact public discussion."

Related: DNI Chief Clapper Takes Swipe at Trump, Assange as He Defends Russia Hack Intel

In an interview Sunday on "Meet the Press," Carter called Russia's actions an "aggressive act against our very democracy" and said the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration "represent a beginning and not the end, a floor, not the ceiling."

Further action will be up to the next Congress and the new administration, he said, but he didn't rule out a military response.

"I think we should not limit ourselves, when cyber is the means used to commit aggression against us, to a cyber response. That part is right. I don't think it should be a military or purely military response," he said.

In a taped interview that aired Sunday, Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, echoed Carter, with McCain warning that Russia "can do grave danger to the United States of America."

Graham said the two plan to introduce tougher sanctions on Russia's economic and energy sectors to "give President Trump an opportunity to make Russia pay a price for interfering in our election so it will deter others in the future."

"I hope he will take advantage of it," he said.

The dissonance sets up what could be an acrimonious fight on Capitol Hill between Republican hawks, who continue to label Russia a major threat to the United States, and the president-elect, who, took a softer line on Russia throughout his campaign, complimenting Russian President Vladimir Putin and saying it would be good for the two nations to have better relations and work together.

Following his classified briefing Friday, Trump refused to acknowledge that Russians were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and one of Democrat Hillary Clinton's top advisers — insisting "there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election."

The declassified version of the report declares outright that Putin "ordered an influence campaign" in the election "to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency."

"We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump," the report concludes.

Graham told NBC news before Trump's statement that said it would "shake me to my core" about Trump's judgment if he refused to accept the findings.

"I hope you will embrace the intelligence, you will join the Republicans and Democrats to push back against Russia to make sure this stops and doesn't happen again. If after the briefing he is still unsure, that will shake me to my core about his judgment," he said in the interview, which aired Sunday.

Graham also said that if Trump continues to doubt the investigation, "it's incumbent upon him to make the case as to why [the intelligence findings] are wrong."

"I think he needs to come before the American people and be specific as to why he does not believe what most of us believe," he said.

Related: U.S. Has ID'd Russians Who Gave Hacked Emails to WikiLeaks

Both Graham and McCain warned of grave consequences if the United States doesn't take the threat posed by Russia seriously.

"It isn't just elections that they are hacking into. It is across the board, including military secrets that we have, including the ability to shut down satellites, including the ability to shut down power plants," McCain said. "I mean, they can do grave danger to the United States of America."

And Graham warned that "if our policies don't change vis a vis Russia, the worst is yet to come."

During the campaign, Trump's critics pointed out that a number of Trump's closest advisers — including his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and incoming national security adviser, retired Gen. Mike Flynn — have deep ties to the Russian government in ascribing motive to the Russian hackers.

Trump himself consistently brought up WikiLeaks, the organization founded by Julian Assange, and details from the stolen emails, on the trail.

Although Assange has denied that Russia provided WikiLeaks with the hacked documents, a senior U.S. intelligence official told NBC News on Friday that the United States has identified Russian actors who turned over stolen Democratic material to Assange's organization.

Some went so far as to question whether there was coordination between Trump's campaign and Russian actors — and Graham suggested Sunday that those concerns were the subject of a government investigation.

"I believe that it's happening," he said when asked if such investigations were underway. "But you need to talk to them because I don't want to speak for them."

Those questions have continued post-election as Trump has filled out his Cabinet, with even some Republicans expressing concern about the close relationship of Putin to Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. McCain said after meeting with Tillerson that some of his doubts had been assuaged but that some concerns remained.

"Every president should have the benefit of the doubt as to their nominees. So there has to be a compelling reason not to [confirm Tillerson]. I still have some concerns, and I have got some more questions for Mr. Tillerson," he said.