WASHINGTON — Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham pushed Sunday for greater sanctions against Russia for trying to influence the U.S. election and said President-elect Donald Trump is in danger of being in conflict with congressional Republicans if he doesn’t get tougher on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The two senators, in a joint interview on Meet the Press, also said the U.S. intelligence community’s evidence of Russian interference during the American presidential campaign is overwhelming, and that Trump should accept those findings.
“You can’t go on with your life as a democracy when a foreign entity is trying to compromise the election process,” said Graham of South Carolina. “So Mr. President-elect, it is very important that you show leadership here. Let me say this: if after having been briefed by intelligence leaders, Donald Trump is still unsure as to what the Russians did, that would be incredibly unnerving to me because the evidence is overwhelming. All I’m asking him is to acknowledge that Russia interfered, and push back.”
Trump said Friday that he had a “constructive” meeting with intelligence officials, but still had questions about assertions that Russia hacked Democrats during last year’s election in order to boost Trump’s campaign and defeat Hillary Clinton.
In a report released by the intelligence community Friday, U.S. officials said they “assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.”
“Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” the report said. “We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
Graham said he and McCain will introduce bipartisan legislation to introduce sanctions against Russia that go beyond what President Obama has done and “hit them in the financial sector and the energy sector where they’re the weakest.”
“And we’re going to give President Trump an opportunity to make Russia pay a price for interfering in our election so it will deter others in the future” Graham said. “I hope he will take advantage of it.”
Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats suspected of being spies and shut down two Russian facilities in the United States.
McCain of Arizona, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it’s not just political campaigns that the Russians have been hacking.
“It is across the board, including military secrets that we have, including the ability to shut down satellites, including the ability to shut down power plants,” McCain said. “I mean, they can do grave danger to the United States of America. We never tried to do anything like that (to Russia).”
Graham said he understands that Trump wants a better relationship with Russia, “but the only way we can have a better relationship with Russia is when Putin stops destroying democracy in his own back yard, stops invading his neighbors, stop helping butchers like Assad, stops undercutting NATO and the European Union.”
“When it comes to Trump and Russia, I am really perplexed,” Graham said. “I’m not questioning his motives. I’m questioning President-elect Trump’s judgment…I don’t know what drives him on Russia, but I do know this. That if our policies don’t change vis a vis Russia, the worst is yet to come. And the Congress is going to have a different view on Russia than the president-elect does.”
McCain said he still has concerns about former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, whom Trump has nominated to be secretary of State. McCain said he is worried about Tillerson’s close ties to Russia from his past business dealings.
“Mr. Tillerson’s relationship with Putin personally and Russia has raised concerns with me,” McCain said. “I met with him. I still have additional questions.”
McCain said “there’s a couple of areas that I feel better” about after meeting with Tillerson.
“Every president should have the benefit of the doubt as to their nominees,” McCain said. “So there has to be a compelling reason not to. I still have some concerns and I have got some more questions for Mr. Tillerson.”