Senator King Urges Republicans Not to Pull Plug on Russia Probe

(Bloomberg) -- A senior senator on the Intelligence Committee urged Republicans Monday keep the panel’s long-running investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election going, despite declarations from many GOP lawmakers that the case should be closed.

Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent who generally aligns with Democrats, said the committee’s subpoena of Donald Trump Jr. had been issued long before Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared on the Senate floor last week that it was time to move on from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. Trump allies have sharply criticized the subpoena -- disclosed after McConnell’s speech -- but King said several episodes detailed in Mueller’s report must be thoroughly investigated before the panel’s work is done.

"Don’t quit in the last 10 yards of the race," King said in an interview Monday. He said the Intelligence Committee has a responsibility to provide American voters with as much information as possible about 2016 election meddling, because “the best defense is for the people to know it’s happening.”

He underscored the difficulty of protecting U.S. companies and election systems from cyber attacks that could come from state actors or rogue hackers. As President Donald Trump and Democrats gear up for the 2020 election, King said the U.S. should prepare a combination of cyber retaliation, punitive sanctions and upgrades to election infrastructure to protect the democratic process.

Cheap Date

King, co-chairman of a bipartisan effort to address cyber threats, said Russia used the openness of American society against the U.S. by weaponizing the free flow of information. He said Moscow could buy “4,000 hackers for the price of one fighter jet,” which should force lawmakers and intelligence professionals to think more strategically about deterrents.

"We’re a cheap date," King said of the country’s reaction so far to the 2016 interference. "There has to be a price paid for an attack on the United States."

King said people in Eastern Europe have told him the best defense against Russian meddling is to educate the population that the interference is occurring. But King complained Trump has been calling the Russia investigations a "hoax," which he said encourages about a third of the country to not take the threat seriously.

While Mueller concluded that Trump’s campaign didn’t conspire with Russia to influence the election, King suggested one way to improve election security would be requiring campaigns to report any communication with representatives of a foreign government.

King said the Intelligence Committee also should further investigate the polling data that former Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates shared with an associate linked to Russian intelligence.

"That’s a road map for a campaign," King said.

Opposing impeachment

While King still wants more investigation, he opposes impeaching Trump, preferring voters litigate the matter at the ballot box. King said that while the Mueller report details "stark" incidents of obstruction, as well as what King described as eagerness by the Trump campaign to take advantage of Russian assistance, "The judge and jury should be the American people in 2020.”

King said his position isn’t based on politics but on a deep-seated concern that an impeachment fight would divide the country far more than it already is.

But he’s also worried the country isn’t prepared to counter another round of foreign election interference, and he criticized McConnell for stalling legislation that could help prepare states for 2020.

Trade fights

King separately said Trump was playing "a dangerous game" in imposing massive new tariffs on China but acknowledged it’s possible he’ll be successful in changing China’s behavior. In the meantime, he said, American consumers will pay higher prices and export industries like Maine’s lobsters will be hurt.

"This is the ’shock and awe’ of trade policy," King said. "The president is right to raise the issue," he said. But if it doesn’t lead quickly to a deal, "it’s going to be a real blow to our economy."

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