Two Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee tried Wednesday to pick up on President Donald Trump’s recent claim that former President Barack Obama failed to act against Russian interference in the 2016 election. But Nicholas Burns, a former top State Department official testifying at the committee’s hearing on Russian meddling in European elections, was having none of it.
Trump has tried to seize on a recent Washington Post report detailing a struggle by top Obama administration officials to respond to Russian efforts to support Trump against Hillary Clinton. Despite previously dismissing reports of Russian interference as a hoax, Trump said the report showed that Obama knew of Russian election meddling and “did nothing.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho) endeavored to back Trump’s assertion. Cotton surrendered most of his time for questioning witnesses to instead deliver a statement arguing that Trump’s policies on Syria and Afghanistan, along with the president’s proposal to sharply increase the defense budget, makes him tougher on Russia than Obama—despite Trump’s flirtation with rolling back the Russia sanctions that Obama imposed.
In his prepared testimony, Burns, who served as ambassador to NATO and held other posts at the State Department under President George W. Bush, ripped Trump for denying “the undeniable fact that Russia interfered in our elections.”
“Given President Trump’s weak and ill-advised views toward Russia,” Burns said, “it is prudent for the Senate and House to insist on a process of congressional review of Russia sanctions so that President Trump cannot relax them.”
Despite that, Risch attempted to hone in on Burns’ more modest earlier statement, that “the Obama administration should have reacted more quickly and vigorously” to Russian hacking. Risch asked the former ambassador to confirm that Obama was president when Russian hacking efforts occurred and “was aware that this was going on.”
Burns responded that while Obama could have done more, “he did take action.” That included informing the eight top members of Congress about the interference efforts, Burns noted—an apparent reminder that resistance from top congressional Republicans, especially Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), was reportedly a key reason Obama avoided earlier action against Russian efforts.
“President Trump has taken no action whatsoever,” Burns said. “I think’s that irresponsible.”
Still, Risch persisted, inviting Burns to agree that “the Obama administration did not take the significant action that was necessary.”
“The Obama administration should have taken greater action,” Burns said, as Risch’s time expired, “but the more pertinent question today is what our current Commander-in-Chief is not doing.”