Senate Republicans want to keep an investigation into Russian tampering in the 2016 election under tight wraps for fear of embarrassing the new President Donald Trump or the Republican party, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat charged Tuesday.
That accusation, leveled on Trump’s fourth full day in office, helps ensure cybersecurity and Russia’s role in the election will remain highly charged and highly partisan this year.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., described Russian government-backed hacks of Democratic political organizations as an “act of cyberwar” and “a day that will live in cyber infamy,” during an address at the Center for American Progress, echoing President Franklin Roosevelt’s description of Pearl Harbor.
He accused Senate Republicans of dismissing Russian interference in the election “with a ‘boys will be boys’ shrug of the shoulders.”
The main focus of Durbin’s speech was calling for an independent commission to review breaches at the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign as well as unverified reports of contacts between members of Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.
A Senate bill to create such a commission, sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., has failed to gain any Republican co-sponsors but is supported by 16 Democrats. Similar House legislation has nearly 200 Democratic co-sponsors, but no Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he prefers the Senate Intelligence Committee manages the investigation.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., have said they want to investigate elements of the threat through the Armed Services Committee, which McCain chairs, and the judiciary panel on crime and terrorism, which Graham chairs.
Durbin accused McConnell and other Republican leaders of trying to maintain control of the investigation by placing it inside the Intelligence Committee and of aiming to conduct it largely in secret.
“The only explanation is political, a belief that this could in some way discredit the Trump campaign or the Republican party,” he said.
Trump denied for months Russia was responsible for the election breaches. He accused intelligence agencies that had concluded otherwise of launching a politically motivated “witch hunt” against him.
Trump later acknowledged Russian responsibility for the breaches during a news conference, but suggested the media focus on them was politically motivated.
Trump has not mentioned the breach investigations since assuming office.
The president “has not made any indication” he would attempt to stop ongoing intelligence community investigations into Russian influence on the election, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Monday.
Durbin urged an independent commission investigation that would work largely in public but have access to classified information. He suggested former Secretary of State Colin Powell or former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, both of whom were appointed by Republicans, as possible chairs or co-chairs of such a commission.
“They’re testing how far they can go into the body politic of the United States of America with impunity and that’s why we need to take a stand on this,” Durbin said of the Russian breaches. “Shame on the United States if we think so little of our democracy and our electoral process that we can see this interference and not respond with at least an investigation.”