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GOP chairman calls for tighter sanctions on Russia

GOP chairman calls for tighter sanctions on Russia
© Greg Nash

A top Republican on Wednesday called for the Trump administration to tighten sanctions on Moscow in addition to taking other “unseen” actions in response to the Russian-backed hacking and influence campaign during the presidential election.

"Russia is the most immediate challenge. We cannot allow the Kremlin to get away with meddling in our democracy," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

"We need a tough response both seen and unseen, including tighter sanctions. It’s not just about what happened in 2016; it’s about 2017, 2018 and beyond," he said.

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McCaul, who advised President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE’s transition team and was rumored to be a potential pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), made the comments at a committee hearing on cyber threats and the DHS’s civilian cyber mission.

McCaul has repeatedly expressed outrage at Russia’s influence campaign during the 2016 presidential race and called for a tougher response.

The Obama administration announced new sanctions on Russia in December in response to the hacks, while expelling 35 Russian operatives from the U.S.

McCaul’s latest statements came days after FBI Director James Comey publicly acknowledged that the bureau is investigating Russia’s election meddling, including whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

The chairman indicated Wednesday that Russia's election intervention — which the intelligence community indicated was aimed at helping Trump win — should be a bipartisan concern.

"Whether Democrat or Republican, that is an American issue," McCaul said. "The next time, it could happen to Republicans."

The Russian-backed hacks were featured prominently in the hearing, with Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) signaling that it underscores the need to do more to protect election systems and other critical infrastructure.

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) took aim at Trump for what she described as a “borderline dismissive attitude” toward the cyberattacks ordered by the Russian government, citing his positive statements about Russian President Vladimir Putin and skepticism at the U.S. intelligence community’s findings.

“What message does the president’s borderline dismissive attitude toward this unprecedented attack on our democracy send to the Russian government as well as other nations?” Coleman asked a panel of experts that included former National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander.

While they emphasized the need to recognize the severity of Russian hacks, the experts noted that the U.S. should not completely cut off communication with Moscow.

“I think it’s important to remember it doesn’t do us any good to vilify the Russians and push them into the corner,” said Bruce McConnell, global vice president of the EastWest Institute.

“They don’t respond well to that. We need to figure out how to talk to them and engage with them, but at the same time, as you said, take them very seriously — it’s a very serious threat to our country.”

Alexander agreed, and expressed optimism about Trump’s potential to carve out a new way to deal with Russia.

"We have to have consequences for somebody coming after our country," Alexander said. "We need to give the president and secretary of Defense latitude, though, in their strategy and their approach. I think this is where President Trump can actually be very good for us because he’s negotiating how we deal with Russia in the future."

"If we vilify them and we keep them pushed out, we’re going to fight them," he said. "We — and you — agree that war is not where we want to go. We need to figure out how to set this right. I think there has to be consequences; I think we have to have that discussion."