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Lawmakers play nice at Russia hacking hearing

Lawmakers play nice at Russia hacking hearing
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Top intelligence officials provided little new information to back up their assessment that Russia attempted to interfere in the U.S. presidential election at a hotly anticipated Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday.  

Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainColbert mocks Gaetz after Trump denies he asked for a pardon Five reasons why US faces chronic crisis at border Meghan McCain calls on Gaetz to resign MORE (R-Ariz.) said from the beginning that the hearing was not an attempt to re-litigate the election, and questions from McCain and other Republicans on the panel were generally not critical of the intelligence community.

McCain’s statement served as a signal that Republicans did not intend to criticize President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' Man arrested for allegedly threatening to stab undercover Asian officer in NYC Trump says GOP will take White House in 2024 in prepared speech MORE for his refusal to accept the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the election.

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Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeBiden defense budget criticized by Republicans, progressives alike Sanders expresses 'serious concerns' with Biden's defense increase Senate GOP slams Biden defense budget MORE (R-Okla.) dinged media reports that characterized the meeting as a hearing on Russian hacking.

“Actually, it’s on foreign cyber threats to the United States,” he said, before questioning Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on the Chinese hack of the Office of Personnel Management.

The comments from McCain were particularly notable given his past fights with Trump, who once mocked his years as a prisoner of war. They set the table for a generally friendly hearing.

Every seat in the Dirksen Senate Office Building hearing room was filled — including six picnic tables of reporters — and a line stretched down the hall before the chamber was opened.

But while intelligence officials confirmed some procedural details, they largely declined to discuss the contents of a more comprehensive review that they delivered to President Obama on Thursday.

Clapper told lawmakers that the report would ascribe a motivation to Russia for the hacks but said he did not want to “preempt” the report. The administration will deliver the report to Congress and provide an unclassified version to the public “early next week,” according to Clapper.

Republicans declined to press him on the issue of motivation, which has been one of the fiercest flashpoints in the debate over Russian interference in the election.

Officials up until now have described the attacks on the Democratic National Committee and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClose the avenues of foreign meddling Pelosi planned on retiring until Trump won election: report Pence autobiography coming from Simon & Schuster MORE campaign chairman John Podesta as an attempt to “influence” the presidential election, but have stopped short of describing it as an explicit attempt to help elect Trump.

The intelligence community has reportedly come to the same conclusion, but those reports are based on anonymous leaks. Trump — and some allies in Congress — has suggested that the assertion is an attempt by the Obama administration to undermine the legitimacy of his victory.

Security experts have long speculated that it is reasonable to believe Russian President Vladimir Putin would have favored Trump over Clinton because of Trump’s relatively warm attitude toward the Kremlin. Trump also famously suggested that he might not come to the aid of a NATO nation if it came under attack.

Some lawmakers appeared to give the president-elect some cover should the intelligence community make that assessment public next week.

“There is some contrary evidence, despite what the media speculates, that perhaps Donald Trump is not the best candidate for Russia,” Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonMcConnell, GOP slam Biden's executive order on SCOTUS Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists POW/MIA flag moved back atop White House MORE (R-Ark.) said.

“He has proposed to increase the defense budget to accelerate oil and gas production, which would harm Russia’s economy, and ballistic missiles. Would any of those stances put the U.S. in a stronger strategic position against Russia?” he said.

For much of the hearing, Republicans questioned officials on cybersecurity deterrence policy more broadly.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMSNBC's Joy Reid pans Manchin, Sinema as the 'no progress caucus' Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists Biden defense budget criticized by Republicans, progressives alike MORE (R-S.C.), who has long been an outspoken critic of Trump, took perhaps the strongest stance on the issue, calling for broader sanctions against Russia.

“It is time not to throw pebbles but to throw rocks,” he said, adding that Putin “is up to no good and he better be stopped.”

Graham’s comments were critical of the Obama administration, which Graham and other Republicans accuse of being too soft on Russia.

McCain referred to Graham’s comments as a “diatribe,” prompting laughs.

The approach from McCain signals that Trump’s refusal to accept the intelligence community's conclusions is unlikely to cause a serious rift with Republicans on Capitol Hill — or at least that even Republicans in the McCain camp do not want for it to become a big problem at this time.

Before the hearing began, there was speculation about possible tweets from Trump during the hearing. He kept off his preferred social media site for the entire two-and-a-half-hour hearing. 

Republican lawmakers have been hesitant to go to war with Trump over the issue, despite longstanding distaste in the party for Russia.

Most have performed a complicated balancing act — criticizing the Obama administration for allowing the hacks, while simultaneously avoiding criticism of the president-elect.

Democrats were more dogged in pressing officials on the events of the election. Some used the opportunity to hammer Trump for his dismissal of the intelligence community.

“[Who is] the benefactor of someone who is about to become commander in chief trashing the intelligence community?” Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden tasks Harris on border; news conference today Missouri Senate candidate Eric Greitens tangles with Hugh Hewitt in testy interview The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation - CDC news on gatherings a step toward normality MORE (D-Mo.) asked.

Clapper defended the integrity of the agency, implicitly pushing back against charges that the agency’s assessment was politically motivated.

“I think it’s hugely important that the intelligence community be seen as providing unvarnished, accurate and timely relevant intelligence support to all policymakers, commanders, diplomats, etc.,” Clapper said.

“I think there is a difference between skepticism and disparagement,” he said of Trump.