Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday backed calls for a bipartisan probe of foreign interference into the recent election, offering a notable break in tone from President-elect Donald Trump, who’s dismissed reports that CIA agents believed Russian President Vladimir Putin worked help him win the November election.
“The Russians are not our friends,” Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said at a year-end news conference.
The Republican leader said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, will team with top Democrats in probing cyber-attacks by foreign actors through “regular order,” rather than a bipartisan commission — an endeavor that builds on President Obama’s call for an intelligence report on potential meddling by Russia before he leaves office.
“Obviously, any foreign breach of our cybersecurity measures is disturbing and I strongly condemn any such efforts,” Mr. McConnell said.
The comments opened a rhetorical rift between him and Mr. Trump, who lambasted as “ridiculous” a Washington Post report that said agents at the CIA concluded Mr. Putin orchestrated cyberattacks in an attempt to put Mr. Trump in the White House, instead of Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
“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!” Mr. Trump said Monday on Twitter.
Late Friday, the Trump transition team in an unsigned statement mocked the intelligence agency as “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
Mr. McConnell, though, said Monday he had “the highest confidence in the intelligence community,” and especially the Central Intelligence Agency.
“The CIA is filled with selfless patriots, many of whom anonymously risk their lives for the American people,” he said.
Mr. McConnell was careful not to criticize the president-elect, however, and said people should “wait and see” who Mr. Trump nominates as his secretary of state, as reports suggest it will be Exxon Mobil CEO Rex W. Tillerson, who has close ties with Mr. Putin.
Also Monday, Speaker Paul D. Ryan condemned foreign intervention into U.S. elections as “entirely unacceptable,” though he urged Americans not to use the hacking reports to cast doubt on the “clear and decisive outcome” of the election.
“Any intervention by Russia is especially problematic because, under President Putin, Russia has been an aggressor that consistently undermines American interests,” Mr. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said. “At the same time, exploiting the work of our intelligence community for partisan purposes does a grave disservice to those professionals and potentially jeopardizes our national security.”
On the Democratic side, Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas joined the calls, saying any interference is “extremely distressing,” but he said Mr. Trump shouldn’t get off scot-free.
“These hacks are of serious consequence. The president-elect’s flippancy and dismissal of our nation’s intelligence community is shameful. His pattern of disinterest in learning about our national security is troubling,” said Mr. Castro, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
During the campaign, Hillary Clinton’s team charged that Russia was trying to boost Mr. Trump by hacking email accounts and turning the emails over to WikiLeaks, including messages that showed the Democratic National Committee plotted to undermine primary rival Sen. Bernard Sanders.
Mr. Trump also was criticized for praising the Russian president’s leadership style and suggesting he could help the U.S. battle Islamist terrorism in the Middle East, prompting allegations that he would be Mr. Putin’s puppet in the Oval Office.
U.S. intelligence officials long have said Russia was likely behind the hacks, but the new reports purported to confirm that Mr. Putin ordered it to put Mr. Trump in the White House.
Mr. McConnell said the matter would be investigated through “regular order” at the intelligence committee, rather than a special panel.
He also said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, would analyze the overall threat of cyberattacks as it relates to warfare, while noting that Mr. Obama expects a report on Russian hacking before he leaves office Jan. 20.
However, Mr. McConnell faulted the Obama administration for its failed “reset” with Russia, saying it “sat back while Russia expanded its sphere of influence, intervened in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, Syria and attempted to bully the Baltic countries.
“It defies belief that somehow Republicans in the Senate are reluctant to either review Russian tactics or ignore them,” he said.
Mr. McConnell’s comments came during a press conference designed to tout the Republican majority’s accomplishments during the 114th Congress and what lies ahead in 2017.
Yet reports that Russia might have deliberately tried to boost Mr. Trump have dominated the news cycle since late Friday, when The Post dropped its bombshell report.
Mr. McConnell had been under pressure from Democrats and fellow Republicans such as Mr. McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to respond to the allegations.
“I agree with Sen. Schumer, Chairmen McCain, Burr and others: this simply cannot be a partisan issue,” Mr. McConnell said.