Graham urges Trump to defend democracy with Russia sanctions

WASHINGTON (AP) — A top Senate Republican is urging President-elect Donald Trump to defend democracy in the United States and around the world by punishing Russia for trying to interfere in the American presidential election as U.S. intelligence agencies allege.

“He’s going to be the defender of the free world here pretty soon,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a frequent Trump critic, said in remarks broadcast Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “All I’m asking him is to acknowledge that Russia interfered, and push back. It could be Iran next time. It could be China.”

Trump has consistently refused to blame Russia in the hacks that American intelligence agencies say were directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. U.S. intelligence officials on Friday briefed the president-elect on their conclusions that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election in order to help him win the White House. An unclassified version of the report directly tied Putin to election meddling and said that Moscow had a “clear preference” for Trump in his race against Hillary Clinton.

Trump has repeatedly sought to downplay the allegations, alarming some who see a pattern of skepticism directed at U.S. intelligence agencies and a willingness to embrace the Russian leader. On Friday after receiving a classified briefing on the matter, Trump tried to change the subject to allegations that hadn’t been raised by U.S. intelligence. “Intelligence stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results. Voting machines not touched!”

He then declared in a series of tweets on Saturday that having a good relationship with Russia is “a good thing, not a bad thing.” Trump added, “only `stupid’ people or fools” would come to a different conclusion.

Trump had earlier urged Americans to get on with their lives. Graham retorted in the broadcast Sunday:

“Our lives are built around the idea that we’re free people. That we go to the ballot box. That we, you know, have political contests outside of foreign interference.”

There has been no official comment from Moscow on the report, which was released as Russia observed Orthodox Christmas.

But Alexei Pushkov, an influential member of the upper house of parliament, said on Twitter that “all the accusations against Russia are based on `confidence’ and suppositions. The USA in the same way was confident about (Iraqi leader Saddam) Hussein having weapons of mass destruction.”

Margarita Simonyan, the editor of government-funded satellite TV channel RT who is frequently mentioned in the U.S. report, said in a blog post: “Dear CIA: what you have written here is a complete fail.”

During the election, Trump praised the Russian strongman as a decisive leader, and argued that the two countries would benefit from a better working relationship — though attempts by the Obama administration at a “Russian reset” have proved unsuccessful.

At the same time, intelligence officials believe that Russia isn’t done intruding in U.S. politics and policymaking.

Immediately after the Nov. 8 election, Russia began a “spear-phishing” campaign to try to trick people into revealing their email passwords, targeting U.S. government employees and think tanks that specialize in national security, defense and foreign policy, the unclassified version of the report said.

The report said Russian government provided hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. The website’s founder, Julian Assange, has denied that it got the emails it released from the Russian government. The report noted that the emails could have been passed through middlemen.

Russia also used state-funded propaganda and paid “trolls” to make nasty comments on social media services, the report said. Moreover, intelligence officials believe that Moscow will apply lessons learned from its activities in the election to put its thumbprint on future elections in the United States and allied nations.

The public report was minus classified details that intelligence officials shared with President Barack Obama on Thursday.

In an interview with The Associated Press after the briefing, Trump said he “learned a lot” from his discussions with intelligence officials, but he declined to say whether he accepted their assertion that Russia had intruded in the election on his behalf.

Trump released a one-page statement that did not address whether Russia sought to meddle. Instead, he said, “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election” and that there “was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.”

Intelligence officials have never made that claim. And the report stated that the Department of Homeland Security did not think that the systems that were targeted or compromised by Russian actors were “involved in vote tallying.”

Trump has said he will appoint a team within three months of taking office to develop a plan to “aggressively combat and stop cyberattacks.”

On Saturday, he said he wanted retired Sen. Dan Coats to be national intelligence director, describing the former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee as the right person to lead the new administration’s “ceaseless vigilance against those who seek to do us harm.”

Coats, in a statement released by Trump’s transition team, said: “There is no higher priority than keeping America safe, and I will utilize every tool at my disposal to make that happen.”

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