President-elect Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia has never been under closer scrutiny. But this week, for the first time, the views of those who will serve alongside him at the highest level have also come under the spotlight.
As Trump’s prospective defense secretary, secretary of state and CIA director have been quizzed at confirmation hearings this week, important differences have emerged between how they see Russia and the views of the President-elect.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose support in Congress will be vital to Trump as he seeks to push through major policy changes, also seems to be on a different page to Trump when it comes to America’s traditional foe and its leader, President Vladimir Putin.
Trump, in a tweet Friday, dismissed these apparent differences, saying he wanted his Cabinet nominees “to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!”
But where are the divisions most evident?
On Russia’s alleged election meddling
Where Trump stands: Trump for months denied Russia’s role in a hacking and misinformation campaign designed to influence the election. He finally acknowledged at a news conference Wednesday that he thought Moscow was responsible for the hack, saying, “I think it was Russia.” But he downplayed its significance, blamed poor cybersecurity at the Democratic National Committee and said Putin wouldn’t take such actions under a Trump administration.
Where his pick for Secretary of State stands: Rex Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee he hadn’t received any classified briefings on the alleged Russian hacks but agreed that it’s a “fair assumption” that Putin authorized the attacks.
Where the House Speaker stands: Paul Ryan took a tough line on Russia, saying the United States must “step up our game” and adopt a “stronger Russia engagement policy, for sure, across the board.”
“The fact that a foreign government tried to meddle in another government’s election is wrong,” Ryan told a CNN-sponsored town hall in Washington, calling for stronger sanctions against the country.
He called Russia a “global menace led by a man who is menacing.”
“Vladimir Putin does not share our interests,” Ryan said. “He frustrates our interests. He violates his neighbors. … He’s not democratic. I really think a lot of the things that he is doing is to try to delegitimize the other democracies so that his illegitimate democracy doesn’t look as illegitimate by comparison.”
On Russia and the US intelligence community
Where Trump stands: The President-elect for months appeared to give more credence to Russia and third-party websites, such as WikiLeaks, than his country’s own intelligence community when it came to claims of Russian interference in the US 2016 election. Trump may have agreed Wednesday for the first time with its assessment, but he still bitterly accused the intelligence community of leaking the allegations that emerged this week tying Trump to Russia.
Where Trump’s choice for CIA director stands: Rep. Mike Pompeo pledged to shield the agency from political influence at a time when Trump has been critical of the intelligence community.
Pompeo told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that he embraced a comprehensive report of the intelligence community on the Russian breaches compiled earlier this month.
“With respect to this report in particular, it’s pretty clear about what took place here, about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy,” he said in response to questioning. “This was an aggressive action taken by senior leadership inside of Russia.”
He added that Russia would view the debate it has sparked in the US as something that would be “to their benefit.”
Where Speaker Ryan stands: He believes intelligence – including a two-page summary of unverified claims that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Trump – “has been politicized.”
But he defended the intelligence community, saying of Trump: “I think he’s going to learn that there are a lot of good men and women in the intelligence community who risk their lives to keep us safe.”
In a nod to Trump’s complaints that some news organizations published the uncorroborated details, Ryan said: “I completely understand why he’s frustrated that eight, nine days before his inauguration, this junk gets thrown out there.”
CNN has not published or aired any of the uncorroborated details from the memo.
On Russia and NATO
Where Trump stands: Trump has repeatedly questioned the utility of NATO and its members’ financial contributions to the alliance, which many see as a vital bulwark against potential Russian aggression. He has vowed to have better relations with Russia, which sees the buildup of NATO troops near its border as an increasing threat.
Where Trump’s pick for secretary of defense stands: Ret. Gen. James Mattis, a former supreme allied commander of NATO, voiced unequivocal support for the alliance – and said he had said as much to Trump.
“NATO, from my perspective … is the most successful military alliance certainly in modern world history, probably ever,” Mattis said. “I have had discussions with him on this issue. He has shown himself open, even to the point of asking more questions and going deeper into the issue about why I feel so strongly.”
Mattis identified Russian aggression as one of the biggest security issues since WWII and said that would limit opportunities for cooperation with Moscow.
“I think right now the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with (in) Mr. Putin,” Mattis said.
“We recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance, and that we take the steps, the integrated steps, diplomatic, economic, military and the alliance steps, working with our allies to defend ourselves where we must,” he said.
On Russia’s military interventions
Where Trump stands: During his election campaign, Trump suggested he would consider recognizing Russian sovereignty over the Crimean peninsula, annexed from Ukraine in 2014. He also spoke of joining with Russia to eliminate groups in Syria like ISIS. Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria have been widely condemned by the Obama administration and its allies.
Where Tillerson stands: The former ExxonMobil CEO struck a tougher overall line on Moscow than Trump has to date, saying, “Russia must know that we will be accountable to our commitments and those of our allies, and that Russia must be held to account for its actions.”
Tillerson blasted Russia’s annexation of Crimea as an “illegal action” – something Trump hasn’t done – and said he even would have sent Ukraine defensive weapons to use against Russia.
But the nominee for secretary of state admitted that he’d only spoken to the President-elect about world affairs in general terms, and that they haven’t discussed Russian policy, telling the Senate panel “that has not yet occurred.”
Where Pompeo stands: The prospective CIA chief said Russia has “reasserted itself aggressively, invading and occupying Ukraine, threatening Europe, and doing nothing to aid in the destruction and defeat of ISIS.”
On improving relations with Russia
Where Trump stands: The President-elect has pledged to improve relations with Russia. He has frequently been complimentary about Putin, recently saying “I always knew he was very smart” after the Russian President decided not to expel US diplomats in a tit-for-tat move. On Wednesday, Trump said: “If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks, that’s called an asset not a liability. I don’t know if I’m going to get along with Vladimir Putin – I hope I do – but there’s a good chance I won’t.”
Where Mattis stands: The retired general said engagement with Moscow should continue – as it had even during the Cold War – but that he had “very modest expectations about areas of cooperation with Mr. Putin.”
He added: “I’m all for engagement, but we also have to recognize reality and what Russia is up to. There’s a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and an increasing number of areas where we’re going to have to confront Russia.”
What does Russia say?
Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in election-related hacking in the United States.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also denied claims that emerged this week that the Kremlin had compromising material on the President-elect.
“No, the Kremlin does not have ‘Kompromat’ on Trump,” he said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “The information does not correspond to reality and it is complete fiction.”
Peskov added: “The fabrication of such lies in terms of the previous open part of the report, and this one which is a comparable lie, it’s called pulp fiction in English.”
“Clearly there are those who are creating hysteria, who are trying to support this witch hunt, and President-elect Trump himself described it like this.”
He reiterated in a conference call Thursday that there should be more mutual respect between Russia and the US.
“President Putin with his actions and his statements has clearly and undoubtedly showed his readiness to respect our partners, but this respect can only be mutual, it cannot be unilateral,” he said. “That’s why, of course, there should be more mutual respect in Russia-US ties, from our viewpoint, much more.”
Peskov also responded to Tillerson’s statement on Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
“This is his position, we take it into consideration,” Peskov said. “Of course, Russia will patiently keep explaining the matter (to him). Of course, we don’t agree with (Tillerson’s) wording and will be reasonably explaining our position (to him).”
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette, Tal Kopan, Eric Bradner and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.