Shaheen on Russian Hacking Probe, Rex Tillerson, and Trump's Business Interests

Dec 14, 2016

Jeanne Shaheen
Credit Allegra Boverman / NHPR

There’s growing bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for investigations into whether Russia tried to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.

The Republican chair of the Senate foreign relations committee announced plans this week to hold hearings looking into the alleged hacking.  

New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen is a member of the foreign relations and armed services committees, and she joined NHPR's Morning Edition to talk about where she hopes the investigation goes.

You called for a hearing on the issue of possible Russian interference in the election back in September. Why do you think it’s taken until after the election for this to gain traction?

What I was told at the time was that there was concern it would turn into a partisan debate. And as I pointed out at that time and continue to point out, this is a bipartisan issue. Any time there is a threat from another country, in this case Russia who also happens to be an adversary, that’s a threat to our democracy and our national security. I’m pleased we’ve now had three Republican chairs of the three relevant committees in the Senate call for an investigation within their committees – that includes the Foreign Relations Committee and the Armed Services Committee; I sit on both of those – and also the Intelligence Committee. So that’s all very good news. I hope we’re going to get to the bottom of this and we’ll take appropriate actions depending on what we find out about what Russia has done.

What have you been able to learn about actually transpired in terms of Russian interference, and questions do you still have?

At the time I called for the hearings back in September, we had our Secretary of Homeland Security Jay Johnson and other officials say that Russia had hacked into our databases. At that time, it was in the states of Arizona and Illinois. They said there was evidence they were attempting to sew confusion about the election process here in the United States. And they said that reached to the highest levels of the Russian government. So that’s what we knew at the time in September when I called for the hearings. So we know there was a lot of interference. We know that Russia was linked to the hacking of the DNC emails, to Hillary Clinton’s emails and people on her staff, that there’s a connection between that hacking and giving that information to Wikileaks so they could release it. I think we need answers to a lot of questions. It’s important to have public hearings so the public understands what went on. And I certainly hope that the Obama administration will declassify some of the information that’s classified.

Are there actions President Obama needs to take before he leaves office to ensure transparency on this issue? Is there information he should declassify about Russian interference, for example?

He has said they will be investigating, that the intelligence community will be investigating. I think the question is whether information will be declassified. There are members of the intelligence committee who have called on the Obama administration to declassify some information that was testified to during a classified briefing of the intelligence committee. It’s my hope that they will agree to do that, release that information to the public. I have seen some of it and I find it very troubling.

How concerned are you that President-elect Trump has been so dismissive of this issue and doesn’t seem interested in finding out what happened? Could be block these investigations after the inauguration?

He certainly can’t block the investigations going on in the Senate. It’s disappointing to hear that he has been so dismissive of this information that’s come from our intelligence community. It’s in his interest and everyone’s interest in America to get to the bottom of this to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. I’ve been on a number of electoral observation missions in countries around the world – Armenia, Georgia – countries where they were expecting interference from the Russian government. I never expected that we would see that kind of interference in the United States from the Russian government.

Your colleague, Senator Claire McCaskill, called Russian interference in the election quote-a form of warfare. Do you agree with that assessment?

I do. In fact, we had someone testify before the armed services committee in the last couple weeks who called it exactly that. He said this is another strategy, just like their military strategy, just like their information strategy that Russia is using to undermine Western values and Western democracy.

What should the U.S. response be?

The response needs to be a thorough investigation into what happened, to make that information public so voters and people across this country know what happened. And then we need to think about what the appropriate steps are. Are there additional sanctions we should take? Should we prevent certain high Russian officials from traveling to the United States? That’s why it’s so troubling to hear the suggestion that there are very close ties between so many people who Donald Trump is talking about being part of his cabinet and part of his White House inner circle, who have those close ties to Vladimir Putin. This is information that needs to come out to the public.

You’ve expressed deep concerns about Trump’s nomination of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State. What are your concerns?

First of all, I think we need a thorough examination. That’s what the hearing process is all about. But the concerns that I and others and both sides of the aisle have expressed about Tillerson have to do with his close ties to Vladimir Putin and the potential conflicts of interest he might have because of his dealings as an executive at Exxon and Exxon’s influence and dealings with countries around the world. Because of his lack of diplomatic and government experience, I think all of those things should be examined very carefully at the hearing when he comes before the foreign relations committee.

Do you see any benefits to his business ties?

Well, I’m sure he brings a breadth of experience, but the question is whether the negatives that he brings outweigh that. The other question that I have and I want to hear his answers to are what his role was in Exxon’s effort to undermine the science around climate change. There have been reports that have come out in recent months about Exxon’s deliberate effort to undermine science around climate change. And so I want to know if he knew about that, what his role was, did he condone that effort, so I think there are a lot of questions for Mr. Tillerson.

President-elect Trump canceled a press conference slated for this week to talk about how he’s going to handle his business interests. What questions does he need to answer on this issue?

Again, it was very disappointing to see that he has still not answered those questions about his conflicts of interest and what he’s going to do with his business interests so he avoids that as president. He’s tweeted a couple of times about that, but we really need a serious discussion. He needs to be clear with the American people about what he’s going to do and he needs to put forward a real plan to distance himself from his business interests that would set up potential conflicts of interest for him as president. And he needs to do that before he’s sworn in.

Do you actually think Trump will divest of his interests before he’s inaugurated?

He’s certainly suggested that he does not intend to do that.