Congress right to probe Russian interference with U.S. elections

The Observer editorial board

Critics say Russia’s Vladimir Putin wants to destabilize democracies like the United States.
Critics say Russia’s Vladimir Putin wants to destabilize democracies like the United States. AP

Did the Russians meddle with America’s election specifically to get Donald Trump into the White House?

The CIA thinks so – and has said as much to congressional leaders behind closed doors, according to recent reports by the Washington Post and the New York Times.

The FBI agrees that the Russians interfered with the election, but apparently hasn’t concluded that the Russians did so specifically to help Trump.

Here’s what we do know for sure: Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee and of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta represents a serious national security breach. If the leaks happened to Democrats this time, they can happen to Republicans next time.

We’re encouraged that a bipartisan group of senators has called for a congressional investigation, and that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have expressed support. As McConnell rightly noted: “The Russians are not our friends.”

Donald Trump didn’t get the memo. During the campaign, he reveled in Wikileaks’ damaging stream of anti-Clinton emails, but now he insists China or “some guy in his home in New Jersey” could have done it. No big deal. Everyone move along.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Trump told Fox News on Sunday about the Russian allegations. “I don’t believe it.”

So how is he supposed to protect America’s national security interests if he’s taking office at war with the agency that’s supposed to be his eyes and ears around the globe? Or, for that matter, when he continues to turn down most daily intelligence briefings?

We understand why he would be sensitive to any suggestion that a foreign power helped him win. He lost the popular vote by 2.8 million, and won the decisive Electoral College states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by razor-thin margins.

But no evidence has been produced showing any vote-tampering. Short of that, or any proof that his campaign collaborated with Russia, no one should question his right to take office as the nation’s 45th president in January.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see here. Russia seems to have conducted an extraordinarily effective cyber-warfare campaign, targeting and disrupting institutions at the center of American democracy. Its leaks toppled the head of the DNC, and deepened anti-Clinton sentiment among Bernie Sanders’ supporters.

One key unanswered question for investigators: Did Russia also hack the databases housing the Republican National Committee’s data? RNC officials say no, but intelligence officials say yes.

The Times said intelligence officials believe Russia targeted leaks to hurt Democrats. If so, that’s a sinister thumb on the scale of American democracy.

We must have a full and careful analysis of the hacking, and it must never be allowed to happen in another presidential election.

A strong bipartisan probe can, we hope, repair the damage and restore public trust. If Trump’s ego won’t let him get aboard that effort, he needs, at the very least, to stay out of Congress’ way.