A man walks past a graffiti depicting Republican presidential Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Vilnius, Lithuania, June 1, 2016.
Photo by Ints Kalnins/Reuters

Questions surrounding Russia's intervention in election intensify

— Updated
The controversy surrounding Russia's alleged espionage operation targeting the American presidential election took an under-appreciated turn just two days after Election Day. On Nov. 10, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said "there were contacts" between the Russian government and Donald Trump's campaign team before the U.S. presidential election.

In fact, Ryabkov said "quite a few" members of Trump's team had been "staying in touch with Russian representatives" before Americans cast their ballots.

The claims, when considered in context, raise an alarming possibility: while officials in Vladimir Putin's government were allegedly undermining the U.S. political process in order to help put Trump in the White House, Trump's representatives were communicating with Russian officials behind the scene.

The question, then, is pretty straightforward: did those discussions happen or not? On CBS's "Face the Nation" yesterday, host John Dickerson asked Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump's senior advisors, about this.

DICKERSON:  Did anyone involved in the Trump campaign have any contact with Russians trying to meddle with the election?

CONWAY:  Absolutely not. And I discussed that with the president-elect just last night. Those conversations never happened. I hear people saying it like it's a fact on television. That is just not only inaccurate and false, but it's dangerous and it does undermine our democracy.

Note, in Conway's mind, it's news reports that "undermine our democracy," not illegal Russian intervention in an American election.

Regardless, it's clear that someone isn't telling us the whole story. Russia's deputy foreign minister claims Team Trump "stayed in touch" with officials from the foreign adversary ahead of the election, while Team Trump insists there were no conversations. There's no obvious reason for Russia to lie about this, but the contradiction between the two stories needs some kind of resolution.

Maybe Congress could launch a credible investigation into this burgeoning scandal.

A bipartisan group of senators on Sunday urged Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and majority leader, to create a new, select committee on cyberattacks to investigate possible Russian interference in the American election.

"Recent reports of Russian interference in our election should alarm every American," the senators wrote in a letter released on Sunday. "Cybersecurity is the ultimate cross-jurisdictional challenge, and we must take a comprehensive approach to meet this challenge effectively."

They recommended that the select committee undertake a "comprehensive investigation of Russian interference" and develop "comprehensive recommendations and, as necessary, new legislation to modernize our nation's laws, governmental organization, and related practices to meet this challenge."

The New York Times' report noted that the recommendation came by way of four senators: Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham, along with Democrats Chuck Schumer and Jack Reed.

The letter to McConnell, who has resisted the idea of such an investigation, came soon after McCain told CNN's Jake Tapper, "There's no doubt [Russian officials] were interfering. There's no doubt. The question is now, how much and what damage? And what should the United States of America do?" McCain added that if America's opponents "are able to harm the electoral process, then they destroy democracy."

Such language is becoming more common among those who take the scandal seriously. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), for example, told MSNBC on Friday, "We have to recognize that this is the political equivalent of 9/11. Russia has attacked the core process in our nation, the core process behind our presidency. And this is not just a modest deal or a big deal -- this is a gigantic issue and it deserves massive exploration, declassification. Americans need to know the story."

As for Trump, what would it take for the president-elect to listen to U.S. intelligence agencies? Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, said of his boss yesterday, "I think he would accept the conclusion if these intelligence professionals would get together, put out a report."

I'm not sure what this means. Trump has been told by intelligence officials for months about Russia's alleged crimes, and to date, the Republican has said he refuses to believe them -- choosing instead to believe Vladimir Putin's government. If U.S. officials "put out a report," Trump would change his mind? Why, because the president-elect has so much affection for the written word?

The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, meanwhile, had a good column on this over the weekend, labeling Trump the "Russian Poodle."

"Let's be clear," Kristof wrote. "This was an attack on America, less lethal than a missile but still profoundly damaging to our system. It's not that Trump and Putin were colluding to steal an election. But if the C.I.A. is right, Russia apparently was trying to elect a president who would be not a puppet exactly but perhaps something of a lap dog -- a Russian poodle."

Sometimes, labels like these tend to stick for a reason.