Now, it’s Donald Trump’s turn to be the target.
McCain and Graham, the maverick partners on an array of issues, will take the stage Thursday on the matter of cyberthreats to the United States broadly, and Russian interference in the U.S. election specifically. And, true to form, neither is likely to pull punches — never mind that a member of their own party who has repeatedly downplayed the notion that Russian meddling might have aided his campaign is about to be sworn in as president.
“You can expect I’ll do what I’ve been doing: I worked with Obama, though I didn’t agree with him, I certainly was a check,” Graham said in an interview. “I have a lot in common with President-elect Trump in terms of the domestic agenda. When it comes to foreign policy, I agree with him on Iran, I agree with him on China. Russia: I have no idea where he’s coming from.”
The Thursday hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee is the first of what McCain says will be an extensive effort to investigate the cyberthreats that the longtime U.S. adversary and other hostile nations pose to the United States.
A source familiar with Thursday’s hearing said that while the panel has a cybersecurity focus, the assumption is that senators will zero in on Russian intrusion in the election. McCain is calling several of the top U.S. voices on intelligence to testify, including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Security Agency chief Adm. Mike Rogers. It will be a public forum, before potentially moving to a closed-door classified meeting later in the day.
Their investigation, which includes a new panel on cybersecurity headed by Graham, could end up being the only effort in a GOP-controlled Congress that directly clashes with Trump and his skepticism of the U.S. intelligence community. Despite a growing consensus in the intelligence world that Russia actively tried to tilt the election toward Trump, the president-elect has repeatedly expressed doubt. This week, he referred to the “so-called Russian hacking.”
McCain and Graham have struggled to come to terms with Trump’s position. McCain said curtly that Trump “is entitled to his own opinion.”
“He says he has doubts about Russia’s involvement in hacking? I’d like to hear those doubts,” Graham added.
Most Republicans in Congress have maintained their tough-on-Russia posture, despite Trump’s defiant admiration of Vladimir Putin and effort to reset relations between the Cold War adversaries. Two other Senate committees are investigating the Russian activities to influence the election.
But other committee chairmen and party leaders are loath to criticize Trump for questioning assessments that Russia tried to tip the scales in his favor.
“[Trump] wants to see the evidence. Which is not an unreasonable position,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Graham and McCain, by contrast, have teamed with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in calling for a select committee on Russian hacking and other cyberthreats. The two Republicans have been vocal about their concerns that Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is too cozy with Putin and Russia.
McCain said Wednesday that he wants to hear Tillerson’s views on the Russia hacking before saying whether he will support him. The two were scheduled to meet on Wednesday, and while McCain said that it’s possible he could back Tillerson, the senator added that “there’s also a realistic scenario that pigs fly.”
It’s an open question as to what his committee will produce. McCain and Graham were forced to drop their call for a select committee after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposed it. And McCain, who just won reelection overwhelmingly in Arizona, avoided any characterization that he’s looking to serve as a check on Trump despite his long history of breaking with his party when he believes it’s wrong.
“My job is to do my job. And that means to defend the nation,” McCain said.
For Democrats looking for any hint of a bipartisan sheen to their criticisms of Trump, the two GOP senators’ voices have been a godsend.
“They’re just intellectually honest. They were in the same place they were a year ago on Russia,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). Members of the broader GOP intelligence community “all share these concerns with Lindsey Graham, with John McCain. The preponderance of the facts will treat them well over time.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) asserted that other than McCain and Graham, other Republican senators are “afraid of Trump.”
“I think that they have a lot of courage and are willing to stand up to Trump on this. And hopefully with John as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, we’ll be able to get to the bottom of this,” she said.
If Republicans are annoyed with Graham and McCain siding with Schumer, they’re choosing their words carefully. Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), one of Trump’s strongest supporters and now a member of the Armed Services Committee, said he hoped that Congress could “show a consistent front” to the rest of the world. But he said it was proper and in character for McCain and Graham to raise questions.
“I consider both Sens. McCain and Graham to be two of the most independent, capable people on the Hill,” added Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “So I think it’s healthy.”
Still, only one other GOP senator, Cory Gardner of Colorado, has backed a select committee on cybersecurity. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is the only other Republican raising issues about Tillerson’s ties to Russia and threatening to oppose his nomination.
So for now, McCain and Graham’s willingness to cross Trump make them lonely figures in the Republican Party. McCain said he’d welcome others to join with him to form a new band of Senate contrarians, as former Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) once did.
But “maybe they don’t want to,” the Arizona senator cracked. “Maybe it’s the kiss of death.”