Back in September, New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen became the first senator to call for a hearing about Russia’s interference in the US presidential race.
On Thursday morning, she got that hearing — or at least, the first of many. The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing with the country’s top spies — Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; Adm. Mike Rogers, head of the US Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency; and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Marcel Lettre.
They met to address what Clapper described as President-elect Donald Trump’s "disparagement" of the intelligence community over its assessment of Russia’s attempt to boost Trump’s chances of winning the White House.
In a phone interview on Thursday shortly after the hearing, Shaheen — the rare lawmaker to sit on both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — told me that it is “very disappointing” to watch Trump take the unprecedented step of publicly disparaging the American intelligence community. Trump, she added, simply “doesn't seem to understand the enormity of what's going on here.”
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.
You were the first senator to call, back in September, for a Senate hearing to examine the evidence that Russia was trying to interfere in our election. Can you lay out for me why you think this issue is so important, and why you feel it shouldn’t just be swept under the rug now that the election is over?
I became concerned about this issue when we first heard the reports about possible Russian hacking into the voting databases in Arizona and Illinois. We had statements from the Department of Homeland Security, from Secretary [Jeh] Johnson, and I think Director Clapper as well. He talked about this at our hearing earlier today, that there had been Russian hacking and it could be traced to the highest levels of the Russian government.
The effort was to sow confusion, not necessarily to influence the outcome of our elections but to make Americans question the process. Since I think our electoral system is the foundation of our democracy, anything that interferes with that raises real concerns. Back in December, we had Dr. Robert Kagan come and testify before the Armed Services Committee.
One of the points he made is that this is a deliberate strategy on the part of Putin and Russia to undermine Western values and Western democracy. They're not just using their messaging through Russia Today, through fake news; they're not just using military action and economic action.
They have a deliberate strategy to undermine voting and elections in Europe and the West. As he said, and I certainly think he's correct, this is an issue that is not partisan. This should concern all of us — that there is a deliberate effort to undermine our elections and the faith that voters have in the electoral process.
It's very disappointing to me to see the response from President-elect Trump, that he doesn't seem to understand the enormity of what's going on here. That he would suggest that the intelligence community is not correct. For him to denigrate the intelligence community because they have raised these issues, I think, again, is further reason for concern and further fuel to support what Russia's trying to do.
What do you think that Congress should — or can — do if Trump refuses to take any further action to either punish Russia, or if he were to decide, for example, to roll back the sanctions President Obama just put in place?
Well, first of all, I think it is important to give President-elect Trump the opportunity to see the report that's been prepared. Those of us in Congress haven't yet seen that report. I've seen some classified information, I've seen some of the conclusions that the intelligence community has drawn, but it is important for us to see this report, and to see what further action might be taken as a result of the report.
I think Congress has the opportunity to invoke further sanctions, for example. Now, the president may decide not to sign it.
Congress can take further action, and, in fact, Sen. [Lindsey] Graham, in the hearing today, talked about his desire to have a bigger rock to throw at Russia. I do think there are a number of us who feel that way, who believe that it's very important for us to take action against Russia. Not only in the United States but in other countries where Russia is doing the same kinds of things.
We're getting reports from Germany already that they're looking at trying to influence the elections there. They're supporting Marine Le Pen in France, through contributions. We know that they've disrupted Ukraine and efforts to have elections in Ukraine. They've disrupted elections in other countries in Eastern Europe.
We don't need to just act as Americans, because it's in our own national security, but we need to act with our allies to address this. I think it's very clear that this is another strategy, it's another tool that Russia is using to try and undermine Western democracy.
How do you think Congress should respond to the broader allegations about Trump and some of his advisers having financial and personal ties to Russia?
I think that if there are questions about potential conflicts of interest with nominees of the president-elect, and in terms of potential conflicts of interest that he might have, it's important for us to try and address those — if there's not a willingness [on the part of the individuals themselves] to act independently, for Congress to try and investigate the extent of those conflicts.
One of the conversations I had this morning was with Rex Tillerson, the nominee to be secretary of state. One of the first things he said to me was he pointed out that he had divested of his interests in Exxon, that he had resigned, effective in the end of December, and that he was making sure that he had complied with what he understood to be the requirements for avoiding those kinds of conflicts.
I would hope that the president-elect might follow the example of some of his nominees and do the same thing.
Do you think, more generally, that the Democrats either are intending to try to block or would have a realistic chance of blocking any of Trump's nominees so far, given that the Democrats don't have the kind of power they did in the previous Congress?
You know, I think it depends on what comes out in the hearings and what we learn about the nominees and their backgrounds and their approach to the positions.
While it no longer takes 60 votes for appointments for anyone other than Supreme Court nominees, in the Senate, the fact is I believe my colleagues on the other side of the aisle don't want to put someone in place who's going to have blatant conflicts of interest, who's not going to comply with the laws that are required for a position.
For example, in the Small Business Committee, historically we have asked for five years of tax returns. Well, that's what we're going to get from the nominee.
I do think there are requirements that people are being asked to comply with. There have been allegations about nominee [Tom] Price to the Department of Health and Human Services about what his financial transactions have been, and some questions raised about that. I think we need to get answers to those questions.
I think that's part of what the hearing process is all about, to give us an opportunity to find out more about the candidates who've been nominated, their backgrounds, and about their views on the issues that are going to come before the department that they're supposed to be heading.
You know, I have serious reservations about a head of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] who has tried to undermine regulations that protect air and water in this country. I have serious reservations about somebody to head the Department of Energy who, when he ran for president, said he wanted to abolish the Department of Energy.
I think we need to see how these nominees are going to answer questions and what the hearing process tells us and tells the American people, then make decisions based on that.
With respect to Trump's actions even before taking office, such as taking and making phone calls with foreign leaders without consulting the State Department, and using Twitter to make policy statements on issues from our policy toward China and Taiwan to our country's nuclear arsenal, is that something that you and your colleagues are concerned about?
Well, I'm very concerned about it. And we heard from members of the Armed Services Committee this morning, on both sides of the aisle, about some of the concerns that they share about his statements relative to the intelligence community and how that undermines American credibility with other countries. How that helps our enemies, or those countries who would oppose the United States — North Korea, Iran, and China.
I think there are serious concerns that are shared on both sides of the aisle about what Trump's foreign policy might look like, and consistency. I've certainly heard from European leaders, who I've had a chance to meet with, both before and after the election, who have expressed concerns about what the positions of the United States are going to be under the new president. Whether they can count on our support, whether we're going to support our traditional allies.
I think some of his statements have further created confusion at times when what we need is clarity.