WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham has been diplomatic in criticisms of President-elect Donald Trump since his unexpected White House victory.
But on Thursday, the South Carolina Republican made it clear he would not be polite when confronted with Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Russian interference in the 2016 election.
At a highly-anticipated Congressional hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee where the nation’s top intelligence officials testified on cyber threats, Graham pledged an aggressive response to those who would seek to undermine American democracy.
“It’s time not to throw pebbles but to throw rocks,” Graham said. “I wish we were not here. If it were up to me we would all live in peace. But (Vladimir) Putin’s up to no good, he better be stopped, and the president-elect better listen.”
Graham told Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Marcel Lettre and U.S. Cyber Command Director Michael Rogers that he would support them in their efforts to shine a light on Russian misconduct. The intelligence community has confirmed this finding and plans to release a report next week elaborating on its evidence.
“I’m going to let the president-elect know, ‘it’s okay to challenge intelligence, you’re absolutely correct to do so, but what I don’t want you to do is undermine our nation in this arena until you are absolutely sure they need to be undermined,’ ” Graham said. “I think they need to be uplifted.”
Other Senators on the committee largely focused on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as a partner in Russian efforts to disseminate hacked emails and memos from Democratic National Committee members and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, but Graham placed blame squarely on Putin's shoulders.
“You’re saying this was approved at the highest level of government in Russia, is that right?” Graham asked of Russian hacks.
Clapper replied in the affirmative.
“Okay, who’s at the highest level of government?”
Clapper confirmed that would be Putin.
“You think a lot happens in Russia that he doesn’t know about?” Graham pushed. “Yeah, I didn’t think so.”
Graham also stood out among some of his fellow Republican colleagues in making the unequivocal argument that indicting Russia for meddling in the election should not be a partisan pursuit. The GOP at large has been reluctant to take that strong a stance on the issue for fear of creating the impression that they dispute the election’s outcome in favor of their candidate.
“Do you agree with me that the foundation of democracies is political parties, and when one political party is compromised, all of us are compromised?” Graham said to Clapper. “Could it be Republicans in the next election? It’s not like we’re so much better at cyber security than Democrats.
“For those of you who aren’t ready to throw rocks, you are about to make a huge mistake,” Graham said. “We got the chance as a nation to lay down a marker for all of our would-be adversaries. We should take that opportunity before it’s too late.”
This will likely be Clapper, Lettre and Roger’s last time testifying on Capitol Hill in their current roles, as Trump is assembling his own national security and intelligence team. It will not, however, be the last time the Senate Armed Services Committee convenes a hearing on cyber threats and what actions must be taken to prevent them.
Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., a close friend and ally of Graham’s, also wants to make cyber security a major focus of the panel’s work this year. There is some talk of creating a new subcommittee on the topic and putting Graham at the helm, which would give the veteran lawmaker an even louder voice.
Those familiar with Graham’s rhetorical style were not surprised by his strategy for examining witnesses, asking questions that seemed designed less to extract answers than to confirm facts.
“When it comes to espionage, we better be careful about throwing rocks. When it comes to interfering with our elections, we better be ready to throw rocks. Do you agree with that?” Graham said.
“That’s a good metaphor,” Clapper said.
“You’re going to be challenged tomorrow by the president-elect,” Graham said, alluding to Trump’s scheduled meeting with intelligence officials. “Are you up for the challenge?”
Clapper said he was.
“Would you welcome it?”
“Are you ready for the task?”
By the time Graham’s allotted five minutes of questioning had expired, McCain asked Clapper, teasingly, whether he had any response to “that diatribe.”
“I find myself in complete agreement with what he just said,” Clapper replied.