As Trump slams 'ridiculous' CIA claims, Mitch McConnell's Russia gamble pays off

When it comes to CIA intelligence on Russian meddling in the U.S. election, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should have known. And maybe he did, if reports are to be believed. But as experts say, the context has clearly changed.

But Senate majority leader remains in 'politically tricky' spot after wife secures cabinet nomination

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters during a news conference in Washington on Monday. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Mitch McConnell should have known.

And, well, there's a chance he did — possibly even months before the presidential election.

As the Senate majority leader announced Monday that a bipartisan panel would investigate Russia's suspected meddling in the U.S. election, the timing of his principled call for a review seemed a bit rich to some observers.

"The Russians are not our friends," McConnell told reporters at a year-end news briefing.

He added that he trusted the CIA's evidence of Russian snooping with the "highest confidence," a clear break from president-elect Donald Trump's dismissal of the spy agency's findings.

But where was all of this hacker-busting gusto before the Nov. 8 election?

"The context has clearly changed. It was electoral season," says Sarah Binder, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution specializing in Congress politics. "McConnell was being very, very careful with what he was saying."

Russian cyber-threats

It turns out he could have gone public as early as mid-September, according to The Washington Post.

Weeks before election night, McConnell was reportedly among a "gang of 12" top lawmakers summoned to a secret conclave to review U.S. spy agency intelligence on cyber-intrusions. The conclusion: Russian cyber-incursions were threatening the integrity of the elections by seeking to tilt the outcome in Trump's favour.

When presented with the findings, the Post says, only the Democrats privy to the information agreed to shine a bipartisan light on the allegations of Russian interference. Some Republicans, including McConnell, apparently doubted the validity of the data and were reluctant to join a call-out.

U.S. intelligence officials have accused Russia of hacking into Democratic officials' email accounts in an attempt to interfere with the presidential campaign. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Check that against McConnell's remarks on Monday: "I have the highest confidence in the intelligence community, and especially the Central Intelligence Agency."

Post-election, Binder says, McConnell now likely feels free to challenge the president-elect of his own party on a "core bipartisan issue" — taking a tough stance against Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

"My guess? McConnell didn't want to be the one who could put a bipartisan stamp on administration warnings about Russian interference," she said.

Not that the bet to wait until Trump won the election hasn't paid off for McConnell.

He got to keep his Senate majority leadership job and managed to continue blocking President Barack Obama from filling a prized Supreme Court seat.

The choice of the next judge, to replace the late Antonin Scalia, will come from Trump.

There's another plus. McConnell's wife, former labour secretary Elaine Chao, was tapped last month as Trump's pick for transportation secretary.

'Politically tricky situation'

In calling for the bipartisan probe, McConnell has effectively sided with four senators — Republicans Lindsey Graham and John McCain, as well as Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and Democrat Jack Reed.

Trump, on the other hand, has dismissed the CIA intelligence as "ridiculous."

Elaine Chao, who is the wife of McConnell, is Donald Trump's pick for transportation secretary. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

"That really puts McConnell in a politically tricky situation," Binder says, noting that when the president or president-elect represents the same party as the majority leader, "the expectation is the majority leader carries the water" for the White House.

Vincent Eng, a Washington consultant on senate and judicial confirmations, says there's "obviously" some personal interest for McConnell in his spouse's nomination.

"But I don't think Donald Trump would decide not to go forward with the nomination of a 'slam dunk' or 'consensus candidate' like Elaine Chao, even if McConnell decides to raise concerns about Russia," says Eng. "She's definitely qualified. There's no reason whatever McConnell does or does not do should change that."

Trump's choice for secretary of state is Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, who has met growing scrutiny amid the Russian hacking controversy. (Daniel Kramer/Reuters)

A far more contentious pick is that of secretary of state.

Trump's choice, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, has met growing scrutiny amid the Russian hacking controversy. Tillerson has close business ties to Russia, raising major concerns among prominent senators.

Putin has awarded him with the country's Order of Friendship, a distinction recognizing foreign nationals who worked for the betterment of the Russian Federation.

Those warm relations could become a liability.

"Being a 'friend of Vladimir' is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio wrote on Twitter. The Republican sits on the foreign relations committee, which will consider Trump's secretary of state nominee.

Eng suggests that Trump's nomination of Tillerson could ultimately be floated as a trial balloon to test the media and public response to the pick, comparing the situation to Obama's 2009 nomination of Tom Daschle for Health and Human Services secretary. Daschle withdrew from consideration following controversy over unpaid taxes, though Obama stood by his choice.

The likelihood of Tillerson's confirmation appears to be shrinking, with the Republicans only controlling a slim 52-seat majority in the Senate. Even so, Trump has not signalled that he's reconsidering the pick.

CIA criticism could be shortsighted

Meanwhile, Trump continues to publicly discredit the intelligence apparatus he's about to inherit, says Henry Hale, who teaches courses on Russian politics at George Washington University.

Destroying the trust between yourself as president and the critical national security apparatus doesn't strike me as smart.- Thomas Graham, Russian affairs specialist

The tiff sets up a "dangerous precedent" that "could come back to bite him" when it matters, Hale says, such as if his administration ever needs to fall back on the credibility of CIA intelligence to sell the American public on taking action against an imminent overseas threat. There's also always the possibility the same Russian hackers could pull the trigger on leaking documents damaging to Trump.

"Destroying the trust between yourself as president and the critical national security apparatus doesn't strike me as smart," says Thomas Graham, a Russian affairs specialist with Kissinger Associates.

A supporter of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump looks on a 'Thank You USA' rally stop in Baton Rouge, La., on Dec. 9, 2016. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Graham doubts Russian hackers were trying to seal a Trump presidency. He says Russian intelligence may have been more interested in undermining democratic institutions than targeting a particular candidate. 

Why, then, would hackers only release information damaging to the Clinton campaign?

"One of the hypotheses would be that the Clinton campaign was doing enough to tarnish Donald Trump's reputation, so they don't need to do that for them," he says.

Besides, Graham suspects the Kremlin might have preferred a Clinton win, reasoning that Trump is "too unpredictable" for Russian tastes.

"Particularly," he says, "as someone with access to nuclear weapons."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong