Trump's skepticism on Russian hacking puts his cabinet picks on a tightrope

Discord on Russia between Donald Trump and senior Republican leaders is expected to be vented in a very public forum next week, and it could wind up blowing in the faces of some of the U.S. president-elect’s cabinet picks.

Confirmation hearings scheduled to begin next Wednesday will likely focus on the Kremlin’s alleged meddling with the U.S. election, when six would-be cabinet members testify before Senate committees.

From there, it gets a little fraught for the nominees.

That would be owing to Trump’s soft line on Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump’s skepticism about his own intelligence community’s conclusions that Moscow directed hacking into the U.S. political system, says Gary Schmitt, a former staff director of the Senate select committee on intelligence.

“I don’t know how hostile it’ll be, but there will be an effort to nail people down, to pin them down on policy towards Russia,” says Schmitt, who now co-directs the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

James Mattis

As recently as May 2015, James Mattis, tapped to head the Pentagon as secretary of defence, said that among world threats ‘the most dangerous might be Russia.’ (Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press)

“They want to know what they think Putin’s longer objectives are,” and whether that squares with their future leader’s foreign-policy outlook.

National security policy analyst Robert Jervis says the nominees are walking a tightrope.

“There’s clear disagreement on a need for fairly tough policies on Russia, but none of them want to contradict the president,” says Jervis, a professor of international politics at Columbia University.

At the same time, “none of them wants to start their time in office getting in a big argument with the Senate, and none of them wants their hearings to be front-page news for days.”

The nominees will need to resist expounding on questions designed to draw out dissension with Trump, despite the CIA’s confidence that Russian cyber-intrusions occurred.

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Trump has cast doubt on intelligence agencies’ findings that Moscow orchestrated hacks during last year’s election campaign. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

“It’s going to be awkward to watch,” Jervis says, particularly for those already on the record characterizing Russia as a threat.

Secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson has complex business ties in Russia from his time as CEO of ExxonMobil, and new national security adviser Michael Flynn has accepted flights to Moscow and dined alongside Putin.

But James Mattis, tapped to head the Pentagon as secretary of defence, said in May 2015 that among world threats “in the near term, I think the most dangerous might be Russia.”

Similarly, would-be CIA director Mike Pompeo has expressed hawkishness on Russia, tweeting last May that Iran’s “growing allegiance with Russia is troubling and potentially dangerous.”

Vincent Eng, an expert on the Senate confirmation process, imagines a stock response for sidestepping the issue “along the lines of, they’re not privy to the reports to formulate a judgment … [but] if evidence did support hacking by any government, they would take appropriate action.”

Congress Election Hacking

Senate armed services committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks on Capitol Hill during the committee’s hearing on foreign cyber threats. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

How Pompeo might deliver a line saying he hasn’t been briefed on intelligence matters might be a tougher sell, given his status as a member of cybersecurity subcommittee on the House permanent select committee on intelligence.

Still, that assumes a canned response would satisfy Democratic senators as well as Republican senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton, who have been most vocal about their suspicions of Russia.

The Senate armed services committee opened Thursday’s first hearing to investigate suspected Russian hacking to meddle with the U.S. election outcome.

In remarks to top intelligence officials, Graham warned that cyber intrusions from Russia or any government against the U.S. could not be tolerated.

“I wish we were not here. If it were up to me, we would all live in peace. But Putin’s up to no good, he better be stopped and the president-elect better listen,” Graham said.

Senate 2016 Arizona

Senate armed services committee chairman John McCain has made it clear he believes Russia interfered in the U.S. election, in contrast to president-elect Donald Trump. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

Planning for the confirmation hearings, Trump’s transition team was reportedly coaching cabinet nominees in handling testy exchanges.

A nightmare scenario would be if the nominees could be baited into blurting out some anti-Moscow remark that could be interpreted as a policy pronouncement that goes against the new White House line.

“This amount of public dissension, this early, on such a critical issue is a little unusual,” says David Shlapak, a senior defence analyst with the Rand Corporation who studies security issues relating to Russia.

Airing these differences in the public forum of a confirmation hearing allows Republican senators to reassert a balance of power between the Senate and the White House.

“They have to make clear they have voices and expect be heard,” Shlapak says. “The new administration shouldn’t expect to come in and … reverse many years of policy without having a discussion about it.”

James Clapper

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday that the cyberattacks as ‘aggressive’ as the U.S. has seen during an election campaign. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

As Trump’s nominees are likely to be confirmed anyway, George Washington University political science professor Gary Nordlinger doubts there’s much to gain from actively trying to embarrass the cabinet nominees of a president from their own party.

Given the broad range of issues Republicans do agree on, such as replacing Obamacare and lowering corporate tax rates, “why hurt the administration’s initiative on the issues they do agree on just to hone in on this?” he asks.

“It’s a momentum-slower. It’s going to drain public approval away from the Trump administration on the issues they’re trying to move forward with.”

Restructuring intelligence agency?

Trump’s rift with his intelligence apparatus comes amid reports he is working with advisers to possibly restructure and trim what they believe to be a bloated Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The spy agency, which employs some 1,800 people, was created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2011 attacks on America, as a centralized co-ordinating body in response to feelings the intelligence community had become too fragmented.

Criticisms have arisen that the bureaucratic body has become unwieldy, inhibiting the flow of information.

A Wall Street Journal report says Trump and his advisers are evaluating whether to boost overseas field operations within the Central Intelligence Agency to put a greater emphasis on human intelligence collection rather than the electronic intelligence.

“It seems it’s a sport to be making fun of the ODNI,” says Jervis, the intel expert with Columbia. But he cautions against “flooding the field” with overseas covert operatives.

“I assume the CIA calibrates pretty carefully how many people they send overseas, so the ability to increase that greatly, I’d be surprised if that were practical,” he says.

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