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Sen. John McCain Weighs In On Threats To U.S. Posed By Russia


Some leading U.S. senators, including the Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are breaking with President-elect Donald Trump and calling for an investigation into the CIA's finding that Russia tried to influence the U.S. presidential election in Donald Trump's favor. Among those senators is Republican John McCain of Arizona. Our colleague Steve Inskeep spoke to McCain yesterday about the hacking investigation and also about the nomination of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. That announcement was not official until this morning. When it comes to the Russian hacking, Senator McCain says that he and McConnell agree that a broad investigation is needed.

JOHN MCCAIN: This issue of the campaign and their interference there is only a small part of our whole issue regarding cyber and our capabilities or lack of.

GREENE: Now, President-elect Trump called the CIA conclusion into question, tweeting out this comment - (reading) 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.

That's the end of the quoted tweet there. Senator McCain told Steve Inskeep that he is looking to Trump's advisors, like two key Cabinet picks, retired General James Mattis and retired General John Kelly, to help turn Trump around on this issue.

MCCAIN: What I can hope is that the people around the president will convince him that this is an issue that is - has to have the highest level of attention.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Do you want a select committee, a special committee of some kind or something like the 9/11 investigation that would have very broad powers to examine what has happened to the United States here and what could happen in the future?

MCCAIN: Right now, it is the view of both Senator Schumer and Senator McConnell - and I agree - that we have the Armed Services Committee, the Intelligence Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee, both chairmen and ranking members and the members going at this issue, and we will coordinate. I am good friends with both of them. We will coordinate. I'm setting up a subcommittee on cyber, not just to examine this issue and what happened and what needs to be done, but on the overall issue of cyber.

INSKEEP: How concerned are you about the threat that Russia poses to the United States?

MCCAIN: I think that Vladimir Putin is playing a weak hand with great intelligence and very cleverly. I think that when you look at what he's been able to do in the last eight years, it's almost astounding - now playing a major role in the Middle East, which Russia had no role since 1973 when Anwar Sadat threw them out of Egypt, the dismemberment of Ukraine, the continued threats and attempts to destabilize the Baltics. His behavior has been, in my view, just outrageous. And by the way, what's really egregious is now the precision strikes that Russian aircraft are dropping - precision weapons on hospitals in Aleppo. I mean, there is no depths that these people won't plummet. And so...

INSKEEP: You - you believe that those strikes that have killed many civilians in Aleppo are not indiscriminate but actually targeted on civilians?

MCCAIN: I know for a fact they're using precision weapons. I know that for a fact. And so when those precision weapons hit a hospital, you can only draw one conclusion.

INSKEEP: Senator, as you know, the president-elect has raised the possibility of Rex Tillerson of Exxon...


INSKEEP: ExxonMobil as a possible secretary of state. He's been criticized because he's been friendly with President Putin. He's done business deals with Putin. What's wrong with that, though? He knows the guy.

MCCAIN: I think it depends on whether he condones the behavior that I just talked about. Did he ever raise those issues with Vladimir Putin? Is it strictly business? I think these are legitimate questions. By the way, I am not making a judgment about Mr. Tillerson. I will wait, and the questions will be asked. That's why we have hearings, advice and consent. And I will withhold judgment, but I think that I have concerns about what kind of business we do with a butcher, a murderer and a thug, which is exactly what Vladimir Putin is.

INSKEEP: We are getting a sense of a group of senators who have expressed concerns about the president-elect's views toward Russia and, more broadly, about his foreign policy. Is there any coordination among those of you in the Senate on the Republican side who have these concerns?

MCCAIN: No, and - not - not that I'm aware of. Look, we want the president-elect to succeed. We respect the outcome of the election. He is now the president of United States. I want to work with him for the good of the nation and security of this nation. I think there's more challenges than we've experienced in 70 years when you look around the world.

INSKEEP: One last thing, Senator, and I'll let you go. The president-elect has dismissed most of his offered intelligence briefings and said on television over the weekend that they weren't of much value to him. He's just being told the same thing over and over again and because he's a smart guy, he doesn't need that. I'm presuming that as chairman of the Armed Services Committee and, once upon a time, as a presidential nominee, that you've received a lot of classified briefings. What value were they, if any?

MCCAIN: I think they're important. I think it's important for the - for the president of the United States to be aware of the intelligence information that we have. There have been times in our history at which he and others are quick to point out, such as weapons of mass destruction. But overall, our intelligence services over time have been, generally, mostly accurate. And we need them, and the President of the United States, I believe, can benefit from them. But I'm not in the mood to tell the president of United States what he should and shouldn't do. I'm just not going to do that.

INSKEEP: I'm just curious if those briefings, having been in them, are valuable. Do you hear the same thing over and over again, or do you learn things?

MCCAIN: A lot of times you do hear the same thing over and over again, but sometimes, I think, when they're of the utmost seriousness, it's beneficial to hear them more than once. So we'll see how he evolves, but the fact remains he was smart enough and good enough to be elected president of the United States, something that yours truly was - wasn't able to achieve (laughter).

INSKEEP: Well, Senator McCain, thanks for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

MCCAIN: It's good to talk to you again. Bye-bye.


GREENE: That was Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. He is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and he was speaking to our colleague, Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.