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Week In Politics: Russian Hacking Of Democrats


We kick off this Friday's review of the Week in Politics with some of what President Obama said in a White House news conference this afternoon. The president was asked about Russian hacking of Democrats and leaking of private documents. The director of National Intelligence and the FBI director both now back the CIA's assessment that the Russians' aim was to help Donald Trump win. That news was first reported by The Washington Post and then confirmed by NPR. When he was asked about retaliation, the president said today the U.S. would respond. But he dismissed the idea of, as he put it, making a big announcement and thumping our chests.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And I should point out, by the way, part of why the Russians have been effective on this is because they don't go around announcing what they're doing. It's not like Putin's going around the world publicly saying - look what we did, wasn't that clever? He denies it. So the idea that somehow public shaming is going to be effective, I think, doesn't read the thought process in Russia very well.

SIEGEL: Obama said he told Vladimir Putin to cut out the hacking when the two met in China in September. And there were no further hacks, he says. We'll stick with the subject of Russia now for a moment as we turn to our two political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution.

Hi, E.J.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: And sitting in for David Brooks this week, Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

FRED BARNES, BYLINE: Substituting for David Brooks, wow.

SIEGEL: There you go.

DIONNE: (Laughter).

BARNES: I'm proud of that.

SIEGEL: I want to...


SIEGEL: You should be. I want to hear from both of you. First, we'll start with you, E.J. How important is the idea of investigating what happened to the Russian hacks? How important were the Russian hacks?

DIONNE: I think the Russian hacks combined with the Comey letter toward the end of the campaign were decisive. It doesn't mean Hillary Clinton didn't make mistakes. But I think they were very, very important. The WikiLeaks story dominated the news. It was just a day-after-day drip, drip, drip.

And I think what's going to be very important - and there's already a fight about this - is how open is this investigation going to be? Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, after first being reserved about this whole Russia story said, yes, he's for an investigation. But he wants it done by the Intelligence Committee. John McCain wants a select committee, which would probably be more open.


DIONNE: And I think a big issue is going to be, how much does the public get to learn about all this? The president says he's going to put out a report before he's out of there, so we'll probably know a lot before he leaves.

SIEGEL: Fred, some Democrats even say there should be a 9/11-style commission...


SIEGEL: ...With public testimony. What do you think?

BARNES: Well, I think that's overdoing it. But, you know, there was Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina - said he wants to hold hearings. And they would be public hearings. And I think that's fine. You can have the intelligence committees do it and have that, as well. I also agreed with - I didn't agree with very much in a piece in The Washington Post attacking the FBI by John Podesta. But he did say one thing that I agreed with, and that is the CIA should declassify all the information they have about what the Russians were doing and let us see it.

SIEGEL: What kind of effect do you think all this talk of Russia will have, Fred, on the nomination of Rex Tillerson, decorated by Vladimir Putin...

BARNES: Right.

SIEGEL: ...After the big oil deal and the nominee to be secretary of state?

BARNES: (Laughter) Well, he'll be asked about it a lot. But that's not the only thing. I mean - the problem with Tillerson is simply this. You have a president who is not very well schooled in foreign and national security affairs...

SIEGEL: The president-elect you're talking about.

BARNES: Yes, the president-elect, Donald Trump. And here you have a - on the basis of what we know now, you have the person he's nominated to be secretary of state, who - while he's traveled around the world and made oil and gas deals and so on, what does he know about foreign policy? Does he have positions? Does he - what - you don't want two neophytes in those jobs.

DIONNE: Good point - I agree with that. I think you're going to see a fascinating split. You're already seeing a fascinating split in the Republican Party. You have people who are simply inclined to go with the person Donald Trump wants. You have people - again, to go back to Lindsey Graham and John McCain, maybe Marco Rubio - he's made some noises this way - who are very fearful of Tillerson's ties to Russia and the fact that he got an award for friendship to Russia from Vladimir Putin.

And then you have this third element, which is many Republican establishment figures who aren't particularly close to Trump - some actually with ties to ExxonMobil - who are praising Tillerson as a kind of moderate internationalist. So I think you're going to have Democrats, on the whole, opposed. And then you're going to have this interesting split in the Republican Party. So it could be complicated for Tillerson.

SIEGEL: It's interesting that Trump passed over Mitt Romney, who had said a few years ago that the great strategic rival would be Russia.

BARNES: The - well, he was right. He was condemned at the time. But it was in - what? - the second debate, the third debate, I forget which one - and it was a fair point. And...

DIONNE: And it's a point of view that Donald Trump very much would disagree with right now, it seems.

BARNES: Well, you know, look, Donald Trump now - going into office, the thing you always say is - every president's said it - you know, I want to get along with people around the world and so on. And look, he said other things about Donald Trump earlier. But now I think this is standard for a president-elect.

SIEGEL: All right, let's move on to another subject, Election Day - Monday, I mean, when 538 Americans...

BARNES: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: ...Actually take part in the real presidential election. They're the members of the Electoral College. There are claims of as many as 20 so-called faithless Republican electors who may not vote for Donald Trump. has a commercial, I think, aimed at electors or about electors. E.J., you wrote this week that the costs of breaking with tradition, that is doing what your state did, would be very high. Why are the costs so high?

DIONNE: Well, the costs would be so high because since 1828, we've basically gone with the idea that the voters elect the electors; the electors vote the way the voters said. But I also said that while the costs are high, in this election, things are very unusual. First, Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote by 2.8 million. Second, you have all of these questions swirling around about what the Russians did to help make Donald Trump president. And I went back to Federalist 68, where Alex - where he explained the Electoral College and he wrote that it's there to prevent a foreign power from, and I quote him, "raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union."

SIEGEL: We tried to get Hamilton to sit in for David Brooks today, by the way.


SIEGEL: We couldn't get him.

DIONNE: Someday. And so I think - I think this year it's a way closer question for a lot of these electors. Having said that, I'd be surprised if enough defect to keep Trump from being president.

BARNES: Yeah, I think - what do you need? - 37...


BARNES: ...I think would have to defect. But I would...

SIEGEL: Defect and vote for Hillary Clinton, both.

BARNES: (Laughter) Well, sure. If they just took them away from him, then it would go to the...

SIEGEL: To the House.

BARNES: Go to the House. And Trump, presumably, would be elected. But I went back (laughter) - when I heard that E.J. was going to cite the - No. 68 in the Federalist Papers, I went back and read it, too. And it does describe their role as not just a knee-jerk voting role - that they're supposed to give it some thought. But the problem is - and look, we've had this argument before about faithless electors, and you never get very many.

SIEGEL: But isn't the point that we work with the Electoral College on the assumption that it will reflect the popular vote?


SIEGEL: And it's quirky when this happens. And there's - if it kept on happening, wouldn't there be a serious problem?

BARNES: Well, there would be you. But usually, there's one or two faithless electors. That's it. That's not a problem.

DIONNE: But I think it already is a big problem. We had it three times until 1996. And then we've had it twice since 2000. We're facing a real challenge for the Electoral College going forward.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard - thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BARNES: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.