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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Trump's Russia problem deepens

Trump's Russia problem deepens
By Niall Stanage - 12-13-16 06:00 AM EST

Donald Trump is pushing back hard against explosive allegations that Russia meddled in the presidential election in order to help him win.

But the president-elect's counteroffensive has been undercut by other Republicans who are calling for a congressional investigation into the matter.

Those calls are coming loudest from Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), but other members of the GOP are also expressing support for a probe of some kind.

In doing so, they have complicated Trump's assertion that the allegations are politicized and "ridiculous," as he said during an interview with "Fox News Sunday." The president-elect added, "I think the Democrats are putting it out because they suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics in this country."

Broader doubts are now being raised as to how tenable it is for Trump and his aides to stick with their defiant strategy.

The election controversy is also putting a new spotlight on ties between Russia and Team Trump more generally, including his nominee for secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.

In his current role as CEO of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson has had extensive dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in 2013 awarded him an honor, the Order of Friendship.

Should Trump nominate Tillerson, he could have a fight on his hands on Capitol Hill, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeting on Sunday that being "'a friend of Vladimir' is not an attribute I am hoping for from" the next secretary of State.

Dan Judy, a strategist and pollster whose firm, North Star Opinion Research, worked for Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign, said that the controversy over the election interference in particular has already shown that there is "some daylight between Trump and congressional Republicans."

"Congressional Republicans, many of whom campaigned on not being a rubber stamp for Trump, are going to live up to that promise," he said.

There are some clear differences in how muscular an approach Republicans want. McCain called for a special committee to be set up in an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Monday that he did not believe such a step was necessary.

McConnell said any investigation ought to be confined to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which, he said, was "more than capable of conducting a complete review of this matter."

Still, any call at all for Congress to get to the bottom of the matter offers a contrast to the views expressed by Trump and his closest aides.

In a conference call with reporters Monday, Trump transition spokesman Jason Miller described the allegations of Russian interference as "clearly an attempt to delegitimize President-elect Trump's win. ... First there was the recount nonsense, then the discussion of the popular vote, now it's anonymous sources with conflicting information."

In a Monday morning tweet, Trump asked rhetorically, "Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!"

Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, made a similar case when she appeared on MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports" on Monday.

"Vladimir Putin did not discourage Hillary Clinton from going to Michigan and Wisconsin.  They ran a terrible campaign with a not so great candidate and ... I mean they need to get over it," she said.

But a different tone could by heard at times even in the lobby of Trump Tower. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) told reporters during a visit Monday that there was "nothing wrong with an investigation that looks at all sides of what Russia did."

Elsewhere, moderate GOP Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) said that a bipartisan congressional inquiry could be "useful toward achieving an objective accounting of any alleged meddling by foreign adversaries." Collins added, however, that the purpose should not be "to question or relitigate the results of any past or present presidential election."

Judy said that the success of Trump's strategy "depends on what people believe. People who support Trump are likely to believe it is just political nonsense. But people who look at him a little more skeptically will take it more seriously. Most people trust our intelligence agencies even if there have been some failures or troubles."

Trump was much less diplomatic about the perils of trusting intelligence agencies.

After The Washington Post first reported the CIA's belief that Russia tried to swing the election toward him, a statement from his transition team shot back that "these are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction."

That's the kind of jab that delights Trump supporters. Yet Trump's posture places him in the extraordinary position of being at loggerheads with the intelligence community that he will rely on in the Oval Office.

Critics of Trump have long charged that his inner circle appears unusually close to Russia.

Paul Manafort, who was manager of Trump's campaign for several months, worked for a Kremlin-backed former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump's choice to be national security adviser, attended a 2015 dinner in Moscow lauding RT, the broadcasting organization owned by the Russian government. He sat at Putin's table on that occasion.

Trump himself has praised Putin several times and said the U.S. should get along with Russia.

Still, the president-elect's supporters insist that Trump should stick to this usual pattern: no backing down.

"He is a man who is interested in doing a job, and the press is going to find every flaw they possibly can, because that is the retribution for Trump winning," said Carl Paladino, who served as co-chairman of Trump's campaign in New York state. "He has the solid support of the American people."

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