President Donald Trump and some of his Republican allies have expressed an extraordinary amount of denial about Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The president seethes at the suggestion of collusion or cooperation between his campaign and Russia, calls the special counsel’s inquiry a “witch hunt” and “hoax,” and continues to suggest that he accepts the assurance of Vladimir Putin that Russia did not intervene. That’s why a new bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee is important: It counters the bluster of the Trump camp with a dose of reality.
The Senate panel, chaired by Republican Richard Burr, N.C., examined the methods behind the intelligence community assessment, published on Jan. 6, 2017, by the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This was the second official warning of Russian mischief – a brief report had been made public the previous October - and was ordered by President Barack Obama in December 2016.
The intelligence community’s assessment declared: “We assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election, the consistent goals of which were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” The new Senate report calls this a “sound intelligence product.”
The Senate assessment reveals that, on the second intelligence finding, there was a Russian preference for Trump, the existence of which the CIA and FBI had “high confidence” in and the NSA “moderate confidence.” The Senate panel says it found the interpretive disagreement to be “reasonable, transparent, and openly debated.” That is a reassuring conclusion about the process and a welcome contrast to the fuzzy thinking expressed by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee in a March 22 report that criticized intelligence community methods and attempted to exonerate Trump’s campaign.
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Putin has repeatedly and disingenuously denied that Russia intervened. Rather than accept these protestations, Trump ought to forcefully warn the Russian ruler against further interference in U.S. politics when they meet in Helsinki next week. Unfortunately, the pre-summit signs are not good. At a rally in Montana last Thursday, Trump breezily dismissed concerns about Putin. “Putin’s fine,” Trump said, adding that getting along with Russia is a “good thing.”
It is a good thing for adversaries to talk to each other, but it is not wise for Trump to remain in denial about the Kremlin’s active measures during the 2016 election. The Senate report reaffirms that the U.S. election was the target of a Russian operation directed by Putin. It is time for the president to unambiguously accept this bipartisan conclusion.