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U.S. Congress, at odds with Trump, eyes Russia hack probe

WASHINGTON DC, USA – Leading senators on Monday, December 12, supported a congressional investigation into US intelligence assessments that Russia interfered in the election, putting top Republicans on a collision course with incoming president Donald Trump.

The president-elect has dismissed the intelligence reports as "ridiculous" defying an increasing number of senators from his own party, as well as top Democrats, the Central Intelligence Agency and the outgoing White House.

US media has reported for days on secret CIA findings that Moscow sought to bolster Trump's election bid, against Democratic former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, by releasing hacked Democratic Party documents.

A Congressional investigation could turn into a showdown between Trump and Capitol Hill at a time when key Republicans are also concerned over his reported pick for secretary of state, ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson.

A group of 10 electors who will ratify the election results next week – all but one of them Democrats – also called for a full briefing on the accusations, before the 538-member Electoral College gathers on December 19.

"Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!" Trump tweeted Monday before another day of cabinet-building talks.

"Unless you catch 'hackers' in the act, it is very hard to determine who was doing the hacking. Why wasn't this brought up before election?"

After the Kremlin dismissed the reported assessment as "absolutely unfounded" a Trump transition spokesman dug in further, saying it was "an attempt to try to delegitimize president-elect Trump's win."

'No doubt'

But Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, as well as Democrats Chuck Schumer and Jack Reed called for a bipartisan investigation with public hearings to find out what happened and to stop the threats that "cyberattacks conducted by foreign governments pose to our national security."

McCain told CBS television that there was "no doubt" about the hacking.

"It's another form of warfare and the entire issue is going to be examined by the Armed Services Committee because it's a threat to our national security," he said.

McCain said the investigation should stretch across armed services, intelligence and foreign relations committees in Congress, aiming to get a full picture of the story.

But Mitch McConnell, the powerful Senate majority leader whose wife Elaine Chao is Trump's nominee for transportation secretary, said the issue should be handled by the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose leader Richard Burr has been silent on the issue since the reports first appeared on Friday, December 9.

"It's an important subject and we intend to review it on a bipartisan basis," McConnell told CNN.

Schumer welcomed McConnell's support and the White House also backed a congressional review. "You didn't need a security clearance to figure out who benefited from malicious Russian cyber activity," said spokesman Josh Earnest.

Trump has long fanned alarm among some Republicans for calling for closer ties to Moscow, perhaps at their worst since the end of the Cold War, in contrast to received wisdom in Washington that Russia remains a global security threat.

Republican Senator Michael McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, also waded in, saying that it must be "a top priority to investigate any outside interference aimed at undermining our democratic process."

Tillerson questions

American intelligence previously linked Russia to damaging email leaks from the Clinton campaign but saw it as a broad bid to undermine confidence in the US political process.

On Friday, however, the Washington Post reported that the CIA has since concluded that the aim of the cyber intrusions was to help Trump win.

The report came on the heels of President Barack Obama's order to review all cyberattacks that took place during the 2016 election cycle, amid growing calls from Congress for more information on the extent of Russian interference.

Trump's rejection of the CIA conclusions signals not only a likely rough start to relations with the spy agency when the president-elect takes office on January 20, but potentially with leading Republicans on Capitol Hill.

"He believes that the CIA is a political institution and he's going to have to learn that it's not. It is apolitical," former deputy CIA director Michael Morell told the "CBS This Morning" show.

The hacking scandal raised new questions about whether Trump's apparent favored choice for US secretary of state will be able to pass Senate confirmation.

Tillerson's extensive dealings on behalf of Exxon with Russian leader Vladimir Putin have raised conflict of interest questions. 

Putin bestowed Russia's Order of Friendship on Tillerson.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee which must approve the nomination, tweeted: "Being a 'friend of Vladimir' is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState." –