Russia Election Hacks Pop Back into Focus as Trump Prepares to Address the Nation

National Intelligence Director-designate, former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, in Washington Jan. 23.

National Intelligence Director-designate, former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, in Washington Jan. 23. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Trump’s intel director nominee pledged to assist congressional investigations into the election breaches.

Russian cyber meddling in the 2016 election lurched back into prominence Tuesday, just hours before President Donald Trump was scheduled to make his first address to the nation.

First, Trump’s nominee to lead the intelligence community pledged in a confirmation hearing to fully cooperate with congressional investigations into Russian hacking operations aimed at influencing the election.

Those investigations in the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have expanded to include both alleged contacts between Trump campaign and transition officials and Russian intelligence operatives and leaks of classified information during the early weeks of the Trump administration.

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“I think this is something that needs to be investigated and addressed,” the nominee, former Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said, pledging to support current intelligence community investigations into the Russian government-ordered breaches at the Hillary Clinton campaign and Democratic political organizations and to share raw intelligence from those investigations with congressional investigators.

Coats, a former member of the Intelligence Committee, declined to run for reelection in 2016.

Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee descended into open warfare over a “resolution of inquiry” sponsored by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., which could force a floor debate on both the Trump administration’s alleged Russia ties and the president’s possible financial conflicts of interest.

Democrats accused House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., of attempting to stifle floor debate on the resolution by scheduling it for a committee markup in a press conference livestreamed on Facebook.

Goodlatte replied in a statement that he was merely following standard procedures by managing the resolution in committee and urging his colleagues to vote it down.

Coats pledged during Tuesday’s testimony that he would not help the administration combat false or misleading news reports as Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus reportedly asked FBI Director James Comey to do in response to reports administration officials had inappropriate contact with Russian intelligence agents.

“My role is to provide intelligence to formulate policy, not to be a spokesman for any political decisions that are made,” Coats said. “I have made this clear. I will continue to make this clear.”

Coats also assured committee members he expects to serve on the National Security Council’s principals committee despite an executive order in the first week of the Bush administration that seemed to remove the director of national intelligence from that post.

The same order added the president’s controversial political adviser Stephen Bannon to the committee.

Trump officials told Coats they did not intend to remove the ODNI, he said, but erroneously copied and pasted language from a Bush administration order that dates back to before the intelligence director’s office existed. That explanation first appeared in a New York Times story last week.  

“I’m reassured with regard to your position. … I am not reassured as to the process that these executive orders have been going through, given what I see as a pretty enormous omission,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said in response the explanation.

Coats also urged the government during his hearing to work with tech firms on a solution to the problem of cop-proof encryption that has frustrated the FBI and other intelligence agencies.

Tech firms have routinely declined such suggestions, saying there’s no way for tech firms to help law enforcement work around encryption in certain circumstances without weakening cybersecurity protections for all of their customers.

In written testimony provided to the committee, Coats urged ending the dual-hat relationship by which the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command are led by the same person, currently Adm. Michael Rogers.

Critics say the dual-hat relationship concentrates too much cyber power in one location while advocates say the 6-year-old CYBERCOM isn’t yet mature enough to stand alone without NSA resources.

Coats supported ending the dual-hat relationship as a senator. 

In a curious turn, several senators suggested Coats’ niceness may be an impediment on the job.

“I’m not sure affability and likeability are qualities I want in this position,” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said. “I want somebody who’s crusty and mean and tough because you’ll be riding herd on 17 agencies that want to go in different directions and reporting to a president who may not want to hear what you have to say.”

In response, Coats pledged to raise his crustiness factor.

“I hear what you’re saying,” he said. “I think the office demands it and the times demand it. We’re not in a passive situation from the world threats standpoint.”

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