Senior Republicans are giving Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt that he’ll make Moscow pay a price for hacking the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, yet the president-elect may face a rift with members of his own party if policies against Russia don’t change.
In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he and Sen. John McCain of Arizona plan to introduce legislation for tougher sanctions against Russia, hitting the country in the financial and energy sectors “where they’re the weakest.”
Graham also said he supports a permanent U.S. military training presence in Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states.
“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.”
The South Carolina Republican and former presidential candidate said he thinks Trump is worried that delving into what Russia did during the election campaign will undermine his legitimacy as president.
“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,” Graham said. “And the Congress is going to have a different view on Russia than the president-elect does.”
Trump on Saturday suggested warmer relations were coming between Washington and Moscow, a day after U.S. intelligence chiefs briefed him on the evidence tying interference in the election campaign to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump said in a series of three tweets. “Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think it is bad! We have enough problems around the world without yet another one.”
McCain, also speaking on NBC, said the Senate Armed Services Committee, which he chairs, will continue to conduct hearings around cyberthreats. McCain said he supports appointing a special Senate committee to investigate the campaign hacking, rather than having several committees do their own probes.
Trump’s approach to Russia is expected to be debated on Wednesday at the confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson, his nominee for secretary of state, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Panel members have said they’ll press Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp., about his years of friendly business dealings with Putin.
While Committee Chairman Bob Corker said on Friday that Tillerson’s views on Russia “are not in any way out of the mainstream,” the Tennessee Republican added that Russia has done “very nefarious things.”
Similarly, Graham said Tillerson has to convince him that as a career oilman he sees Putin as undermining democracy with actions such as the hacking attacks, and that new sanctions are justified.
“I’m looking for a secretary of state who understands Russia and understands the world as it really is. I had a great meeting with him,” Graham said. “I hope he can articulate to the American people that he understands Putin has been a disruptive force when it comes to democracy.”
Also on Wednesday, Trump is scheduled to hold a long-delayed news conference to describe his plans for his global business empire to avoid conflicts of interest while he’s president. While Trump has taken sporadic questions from reporters, it will be his first full-fledged news conference since July 27.