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McConnell backs congressional investigation into Russian interference

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) backed calls for a congressional probe into Russian interference in the U.S. election — throwing his support behind a growing call from Senate Republicans to investigate the issue.

But McConnell dismissed calls for a select committee specifically designated for the effort, instead indicating that the main responsibility to probe Russian meddling into the election lies with the Senate Intelligence Committee and its chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

“Obviously, any foreign breach of our cybersecurity measures is disturbing, and I strongly condemn any such efforts,” McConnell told reporters at a news conference at the Capitol on Monday. “The Senate Intelligence Committee … is more than capable of conducting a complete review of this matter.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee will also play a role, with Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) directing a review on the threats posed by cyberattacks, McConnell noted. The broader Senate review, he stressed, will be done on a “bipartisan basis.”

“It defies belief that somehow Republicans in the Senate are reluctant to either review Russian tactics or ignore them,” McConnell said, adding later: “The Russians are not our friends.”

The majority leader’s comments follow an extraordinary statement Sunday from a bipartisan group of four influential senators — including McCain — who called for an investigation into Russian influence into the Nov. 8 election, warning that reports of meddling from Vladimir Putin’s government should “alarm every American.” And during a television appearance on Sunday, McCain said he wants a select committee to investigate the issue.

McConnell’s counterpart in the House, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), said in a statement Monday that he supported the House Intelligence Committee’s ongoing probe into cyberthreats from foreign entities. He had declined to explicitly say one day earlier that he backed a congressional investigation into the matter.

“As I’ve said before, any foreign intervention in our elections is entirely unacceptable,” Ryan said Monday. “And any intervention by Russia is especially problematic because, under President Putin, Russia has been an aggressor that consistently undermines American interests.” Ryan’s latest statement seems to suggest that House Republicans will continue their current cybersecurity probe, rather than opening up a new investigation specifically focused on Russia.

McConnell was typically careful and tight-lipped on the exact intelligence that U.S. officials have gleaned about Russian influence, attacking those who are leaking internal CIA and FBI assessments about the matter. Other than statements by the Director of National Intelligence made before the election about Russian interference, “anything else is irresponsible, likely illegal and potentially for partisan political gain,” McConnell said.

That remark echoed a Washington Post report from Friday that said McConnell not only raised questions about the veracity of intelligence that found Russia was interfering in the election to aid Donald Trump, but that he would view any attempt from the White House to raise the issue publicly a partisan act. Outgoing Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hinted on CNN that Republicans killed an attempt to go public with the CIA’s assessment about Russian interference.

“I don’t know what [McConnell] did or didn’t do,” Reid said on Monday. “I had a number of conversations with Pelosi, trying to write a letter that everybody would accept. We never got one done. Didn’t get it done.”

But on Monday, McConnell backed a “bipartisan” Senate investigation into the matter and indicated he plans to be a critic of Russia next year and hopes the Trump administration joins him.

“I hope that those who are going to be in a position of responsibility in the administration share my view” on Russia, McConnell said.

The majority leader would not say whether he believes that the Russians were trying to help Trump get elected.

Reid was more explicit and said that “if anyone can read the English language” they can tell that Russia was tipping the scales toward Trump. He repeatedly blasted FBI Director James Comey as a GOP “partisan” who ignored Reid’s entreaties for an FBI investigation and “did nothing.”

“There were reports that people in the campaign for Donald Trump were in touch with the Russians,” Reid said. Asked if the Russians steered the election toward Trump, Reid said: “My opinion is yes. We got no basis in fact from the FBI. They ignored it. Now we’re hearing and you guys are reporting all of this stuff from the intelligence agencies. They clearly see it.”

But when asked about Trump’s dismissals of intelligence agencies’ findings about Russia, McConnell shut down further inquiries into the matter.

“I’ve already addressed my own view about where we are on those issues. And I really don’t have any intention of further elaborating,” he said.

McCain, too, said Monday that he “can’t reach that conclusion” that Russia was explicitly trying to help Trump. And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the incoming minority leader, said disagreement among intelligence agencies makes it difficult to draw a hard conclusion without an investigation.

“You have the CIA saying one thing … and the FBI, something else. We need to get to the bottom of this in a fair, non-partisan, non- finger-pointing way,” Schumer said in an appearance with McCain on CBS. “We do not know what they have done. There is good evidence they hacked into the DNC … the people who’ve been briefed have told me this is serious and wide-ranging. let’s find out.”

Later on Monday, Schumer responded warmly to McConnell’s remarks backing a congressional investigation.

“This issue should not and must not turn into a political football,” Schumer said Monday shortly after McConnell’s press conference concluded. “It’s absolutely essential that this investigation be bipartisan, wide-ranging, and have access to all of the relevant intelligence so that we can find out how this happened, and how we can stop it from happening ever again.”

Meanwhile, McConnell declined to elaborate on Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil chairman and CEO who may be named Trump’s choice to serve as secretary of state but is already facing some resistance from hawkish Senate Republicans for his personal ties to Putin. The majority leader said he did not want to comment on a “phantom nominee.”

“I’ve been very impressed with the nominations so far and we’ll have to wait and see who is nominated for secretary of state,” McConnell said. “We’ll obviously treat whoever that is with respect. They’ll go through the regular process and respond to questions, and we’ll see where it comes out.”

He also added that he expects the Obama administration to release more information about the hacking once the DNI completes its review.

Asked about McConnell’s backing of a congressional inquiry, Trump spokesman Jason Miller dismissed claims of Russian influence as a media-driven “attempt to try to delegitimize” Trump’s November victory. He did not comment on McConnell’s backing of the probe.

Matthew Nussbaum contributed to this report.

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