Sen. Schumer Demands Full Probe Into Russian 'Interference' in Election to Thwart Future Cyber Attacks

Incoming Democratic Senate leader tells Haaretz he does not seek to disrupt Trump’s inauguration, but to launch bipartisan Congressional investigation and 'let due process take its course.'

Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, on June 23, 2016.
Alex Brandon/AP

Senate Democratic leader-elect Charles E. Schumer of New York told Haaretz Sunday that he is “convinced the Russian government interfered with our presidential election.”

Schumer announced during a press conference at his New York office that he is “calling for bipartisan support to further investigate the matter,” and joining forces with Democratic colleague Sen. Jack Reed (Rhode Island), and Republicans John McCain (Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) to build consensus for the idea among their peers.

“Our democratic institutions have been targeted,” Schumer said. “Recent reports of Russian interference in our election should alarm every American.”

In response to a question from Haaretz, the senator said the purpose of the investigation was not to find conclusive evidence of a link between the Trump administration and Russian hackers and an attempt to cover it up, a la Watergate, but to further investigate how Russian hacking not only interfered with our election, but did so with the purpose of helping elect Donald Trump.

Though Trump has dismissed the U.S. intelligence community as “incompetent” and has taken only three intelligence briefings since becoming president elect, Schumer said he was encouraged to hear of Reince Priebus’ support for further investigation. The Republican National Committee chair who’s set to become Trump’s chief strategist along with Stephen Bannon told the host of ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” that while he found the CIA’s claim that Russian hacking had influenced the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections “insane,” he and the president elect would cooperate with a bipartisan investigation into the matter.

"Ridiculous" was Trump's initial response to the CIA report that concluded that a covert Russian operation had tried to tip the vote in his favor. The president-elect also claimed that the Democrats fabricated the report because they suffered “one of the biggest defeats.”

His transition team immediately issued a statement questioning the CIA’s legitimacy: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘make America great again.’

Senator Schumer termed the CIA report, publicized on Friday, “stunning and not surprising” and called for “a full congressional investigation” Saturday morning.

The Washington Post revealed that Republicans whom U.S. President Barack Obama had called on — months before the election – to investigate intelligence reports of possible Russian interference, had categorically dismissed and even suppressed the investigation.

Among those in Obama’s bipartisan “Gang of 12” were FBI chief James Comey and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who blocked a formal inquest. McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, an early pick to Trump’s new cabinet, has been appointed secretary of transportation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with members of the Russian WorldSkills team in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 9, 2016.
Alexei Nikolsky/AP

In another development this weekend, Trump’s transition team announced that their top pick for secretary of state is Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, apparently a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who made billions of dollars on a deal with Russian oil giant Roseneft. Tillerson has said he opposes sanctions against Moscow for its aggressive policy in Ukraine and Crimea, which according to CNN, may have cost Tillerson a billion dollars.

Democrats have called Trump’s choice of Tillerson “outrageous,” and “another victory for Putin who interfered with our elections,” according to Politico. The nomination is expected to come under scrutiny in the Senate.

Though Schumer refrained from discussing Trump cabinet appointments at his briefing Sunday, the Jewish senator stressed the need for a bipartisan investigation into Russia’s influence in the elections, adding “the stakes are too high for our country.”

Asked by Haaretz whether waiting until the new year to review the intelligence findings would be too late to effect any change, Schumer said Congress is in any case adjourned until January 3, and must be back in session to conduct the type of thorough bipartisan investigation required. He added that his intention is not to disrupt Trump’s inauguration, but to safeguard the country from further cyber attacks and to get to the truth about how the electorate was compromised.

Although the CIA report doesn’t inherently challenge the validity of Trump’s win, it has emboldened many Democrats to ask for a recount ahead of the Electoral College vote on December 19.

Debunking 'landslide' claim

To many Americans, the intelligence agency's findings raise a serious question: Would Donald Trump have won without Moscow's alleged interference? While the president-elect calls his victory a “landslide,” the results don’t support his claim.

The GOP candidate actually only won by a margin of less than one percentage point in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — only 80,000 votes combined, in those states – according to The Washington Post. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is now showing a 2.8-million lead in the popular vote, the biggest so far by any white presidential candidate.

All this has fueled speculation that Russian hackers could have helped swing the vote in Trump’s favor, and claims that by denying the public information about a possible plot by Moscow in advance of November 8, key Republicans and the FBI also compromised the integrity of the U.S. presidential elections.

But Schumer reiterated to Haaretz that he is not interested, for example, in investigating McConnell or Comey on allegations of a cover-up for now, nor in looking into such things as the influence of fake news in shaping voters’ views.

“For now, we’re just looking into the hacks into the U.S. government,” he said, acknowledging that foreign governments have apparently meddled in European elections. “Let’s just get a full, bipartisan investigation underway. Let the evidence surface and let due process take its course.”

Though Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was quick to dismiss reports that the Russian government was involved in the U.S. election, Schumer told Haaretz he hardly finds Assange a credible source. Throughout the elections, Assange apparently sought to undermine Clinton by leaking her emails at strategic times, to cause her campaign maximum damage. It’s generally known that while he claims to be an independent agent fighting on behalf of freedom of information, Assange acts on behalf of Putin, who is also sheltering U.S. intelligence hacker Edward Snowden.

The Washington Post reported Friday that individuals with connections to Moscow gave WikiLeaks the emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and top Clinton aide John Podesta. It also revealed that the Russians hacked into the Republican National Committee – an allegation hotly disputed by Priebus. One theory is that the Russians are holding on to the hacked information to use as collateral against Trump or any Republican it seeks to coerce.

While the FBI disputes some of the CIA findings, Republicans senators Graham and McCain believe that this constitutes even more justification for conducting an independent investigation into a possible cyber operation. But the GOP is split on the matter.

“Democrats and Republicans must work together, and across the jurisdictional lines of the Congress, to examine these recent incidents thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyber-attacks,” McCain said in the joint statement with Schumer, Graham and Reid – a rebuke of Trump’s position.

Still the question remains: Why did Obama take so long to bring this information to light and to call for his own internal investigation, which he did on Friday?

“I have no idea,” Schumer told Haaretz. “I read the CIA report. There is evidence the Russian government was involved. We need to get to the bottom of it.”