GOP Senators bring clarity to the Russia election hacking debate

Yesterday, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on Russian hacking especially as it pertained to last year’s presidential election. Paul Kane, a liberal at the Washington Post, gives this account:

Senate Republicans walked a tightrope Thursday trying to show their toughness against Vladi­mir Putin’s Russia without undermining the legitimacy of President-elect Donald Trump’s victory in November.

Again and again during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Russian cyberattacks, conservative hawks found themselves in the awkward position of talking tough against Putin — and talking even tougher about the validity of Trump’s election over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

This is a partisan spin. I watched the hearing. There was neither a tightrope nor Republican awkwardness.

Republicans like Sen. Tom Cotton separated out three questions: (1) did Russia hack various Democratic accounts, (2) for what purpose did they do the hacking, and (3) did the hacking affect the outcome of the election. The second question didn’t really feature because James Clapper wasn’t prepared to discuss it until his report is finalized.

Clapper had no opinion on the third question. However, it provided an obvious subtext to the hearing especially when Tim Kaine, the losing VP candidate, did his questioning. Talk about awkward.

The distinction between the first and third questions is crucial. The question of how hacking may have affected the election is irrelevant to public policy. At best, it’s the basis for a mildly entertaining parlor game. At worst, and in reality, it’s an attempt to undermine the president-elect based on the highly dubious and impossible to prove claim that Trump owes his victory to Vladimir Putin.

There is nothing awkward about pushing back against this suggestion.

The question of Russian hacking of Democratic emails, by contrast, raises national security concerns because it is tied to larger questions of cyber-security and Russian aggression. Separating this question from speculation about the 2016 election isn’t walking a tightrope, nor is it an awkward task. The two matters are easily distinguished.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump appears so far to have trouble making the distinction. Perhaps the clarity that Tom Cotton in particular brought to bear at the hearing will help Trump realize that there’s a real national security issue here, and that dealing with it will not undermine his legitimacy.

The only Republican Senator who struck me as awkward was the disappointing Thom Tillis of North Carolina. He seemed intent on absolving Russia based on statistics purporting to show that we have interfered in twice as many foreign elections as the Russians have.

This isn’t as bad as Donald Trump saying of Putin’s brutality, “our country does plenty of killing too.” It smacks, however, of the left’s “blame America first” mentality. As Kane puts it, Tillis’ line of questioning “resembled liberal criticism of intelligence agencies in the 1970s.”

By focusing on election interference and factoring out the cyber-intrusion piece, Tillis played into the Democrats’ hand. Hopefully, Trump will see the issue the way Cotton and other Republican members do, not the way Tillis does.

An apologist for Russia in the Senate is bad but not frightening. An apologist for Russia in the White House would be another matter entirely.