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Senate leader backs probe on election hack claims

The top Republican in the US Senate has backed an investigation into allegations that the Kremlin engaged in a hacking campaign to influence November’s presidential election.

It is the most serious break yet between President-elect Donald Trump and his party’s traditional leaders in Washington.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, said that Congress would probe the allegations following the disclosure of a Central Intelligence Agency report which concluded that Russia had hacked into Democratic National Committee servers in an effort to sway the election outcome in Mr Trump’s favour.

The president-elect, who has repeatedly dismissed claims of Russian interference and belittled the CIA after its conclusions became public, took to Twitter on Monday to insist it was “hard to determine who was doing the hacking”.

“Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card,” Mr Trump wrote. “It would be called conspiracy theory!”

Until now, many Republican leaders on Capitol Hill who openly broke with Mr Trump during the presidential campaign have fallen into line behind their newly elected standard bearer. After the initial CIA disclosure on Friday, Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham joined Democratic colleagues to call for a bipartisan inquiry, but both have long been seen as party mavericks.

Mr McConnell’s move to back the investigation is the first sign of open disagreement between the congressional Republican leadership and Mr Trump. The Kentucky senator said that he supported two bipartisan investigations, by the Senate intelligence and armed services committees, saying that he “strongly condemns” any foreign hacking and that “the Russians are not our friends”.

On Monday afternoon, three of the most senior Democratic senators called for the establishment of a special non-partisan commission to look into the allegations that Moscow had interfered in the election. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, was backed by Ben Cardin and Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrats on the foreign relations and judiciary committees, respectively.

Critics have questioned why Mr Trump is so reluctant to blame Russia despite the conclusions of US intelligence agencies. But his stubbornness on Russia risks creating wider tensions with some on Capitol Hill even before his inauguration.

Mr Trump is also facing Republican resistance over his consideration of Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobilchief executive with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as secretary of state.

Marco Rubio, a Republican senator who sits on the foreign relations committee that will vet the appointment of the top US diplomat, on Sunday tweeted: “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState”.

Mr McConnell also appeared to challenge the president-elect on his assessment of the CIA, which Mr Trump’s team initially ridiculed as “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction”.

“I have the highest confidence in the intelligence community and especially the Central Intelligence Agency,” Mr McConnell said.

His backing of the inquiry follows a steady build-up of bipartisan pressure for a probe into Russian hacking activity.

Raj De, a former general counsel at the National Security Agency now at the law firm Mayer Brown, said the stance Mr Trump had taken towards the intelligence community, and particularly his rejection of the views expressed by intelligence officials about Russia, was highly unusual for a president-elect.

“It is a very important and interesting question. I don’t know what that portends for the future of national security posture under a Trump presidency. It leaves a great deal of uncertainty.”

Mr McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate armed services committee which will lead one of the probes, on Monday said that there was “no doubt” that Russian intelligence services had hacked Democratic party email accounts and he described the effort as “another form of warfare”.

Mr McConnell stopped short of calling for a high-profile special select committee to handle the investigation, as Mr McCain had suggested, saying it would best be handled by the Senate intelligence committee.

Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA who endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, said that Russia’s reported interference was “the political equivalent of 9/11”.

“A foreign government messing around in our elections is . . . an existential threat to our way of life. To me, and this is to me not an overstatement, this is the political equivalent of 9/11,” he told the Cipher Brief, a website that focuses on intelligence issues.

John Bolton, a Trump supporter who has been in consideration for a senior position at the state department, suggested that the election hacking could have been a “false flag” operation and refused to rule out that the Obama administration might have played a role.

Asked if he was accusing the administration of being responsible, Mr Bolton said on Fox: “We just don’t know. But I believe that the intelligence community has been politicised in the Obama administration to a very significant degree.”

Twitter: @dimi

Via FT