Is Senator Jim Risch underestimating the impact of Trump’s denial of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, or is he playing a longer game?
As ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Risch is poised to become the third Idahoan (after William Borah, 1924-1933, and Frank Church, 1979-1981) to lead it after Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, retires when his term expires in January of next year.
Unlike Corker, who has of late become more critical of Trump’s antics, Risch seems to be taking a “wait and see” approach.
In July, when President Trump practically prostrated himself at Vladimir Putin’s feet in Finland, Risch responded not to his country’s humiliation at the hands of its president, but instead reiterated his view: “My assessment has not changed; Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election and is no friend of the United States. The United States must stand from a position of strength in our relationship with Russia and in defense of our allies and shared values.”
Classic politician answer -- a response that doesn't directly acknowledge the real question: Do you, like President Trump, believe Putin over U.S. Intelligence?
Risch may have wheedled his way around criticizing a president who emasculated the entire intelligence community, but that doesn’t mean he and other members of Congress don't vehemently disagree with him.
A New York Times editorial about the most recent sanctions against Russia -- 213 total sanctions since January 217 -- shows Republicans in Congress may not be bashing Trump's words or his behavior, but they clearly aren't accepting as gospel truth Trump's view on Putin and Russia as innocent of any interference.
Are Republican senators, including Risch, working their way around a tempestuous and thin-skinned authoritarian president without acknowledging his blind spot when it comes to Putin?
The Post Register’s Bryan Clark reported last week on the Idaho National Laboratory’s cybersecurity team's involvement in uncovering and responding to cyber attacks on U.S. infrastructure.
Also reported in the article about INL's cyber team was Risch’s work on a bill that directs the Department of Energy to spend time researching how to protect U.S. critical grid infrastructure from a near-certain future, possibly catastrophic, attacks by Russian hackers.
Risch’s bill is the culmination of years of fascination over a cyber attack by Russians on the Ukraine's power grid in December 2015. Though about 225,000 Ukrainians spent some cold hours in the dark on Christmas Eve 2015, outdated Soviet-era "technology" -- parts of the system that hadn't been updated in decades and still required on-site human manipulation -- ultimately thwarted what could have been a catastrophic attack directly preceding Russia's cession of Crimea. Risch has been working on a bill to try and mimic in the U.S. these analog-era defenses, adding human factors to increasingly digitally-connected systems.
The ultimate question in the current political climate is, how much responsibility do our congressional delegates have to work for or against the executive branch, even if the sitting president is a member of their own party?
The answer is especially tricky in this case.
Risch is a tried and true Republican "company man." A political-turned-personal grudge with deceased Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus, caused Risch to hold up a federal must-pass omnibus spending package for part of a tense day in Congress. So, yeah, it’s hard to say whether Risch would defend the intelligence community's work by calling out Trump in his denial of a cyber war Risch is clearly aware of.
If Risch continues to sponsor legislation allowing cyber security researchers here in Idaho to find more ways of stopping Russian influence and sabotage, does it matter?
Or, as we have argued, is it Risch's senatorial duty to make it crystal clear that, based on his experience with the SFRC, he disagrees with Trump’s soft spot for Russian influence operations – which are becoming more sophisticated and aggressive by the minute? After all, real damage is being done to our system of government.
The consensus of the intelligence community (blessed uniformly by the SFRC) is that Russian hackers meddled in the 2016 U.S. elections using systematic, targeted and divisive issues that had no ideological rhyme or reason. Those Facebook and Twitter bots and trolls sprayed misinformation through the U.S. -- liberal and conservative -- like water from a fire hose. It was a direct foreign attack not on our physical infrastructure grid, but on the psychological infrastructure that makes America's democracy possible.
Criticizing Trump at this moment of flux in the Republican party -- and U.S. politics at large -- is risky for Risch, or anyone else not part of the historic number of "establishment" Congressmen jumping ship (we can’t add “Congresswomen”— most of them seem to be staying put, or boarding).
How far we’ve come from a time when Idaho Senator Frank Church said of his duty as chairman of the SFRC, “There is an important distinction, often lost sight of, between conducting foreign policy and making it. It is with respect to the latter function that Congress does have an important role to play, not only as a check on arbitrary presidential action, but also in formulating policies that command the broad public support without which no policy, no matter how brilliantly conceived, can long endure.”
Our guess is that Risch is more critical of Trump's derision of the intelligence community than he’s letting on. As long as he can keep ego and grudges out of it, Risch could ride Trump’s coattails to a unique moment in time when he can get some historic work done in regard to the new generation of warfare, especially with INL as a major player in the country's digital and real-world defenses.
That said, Risch has gained that kind of power in the past -- as governor of Idaho. He used his seven-month stint to remake Idaho's property tax code, a move public schools and the middle class haven't recovered from a decade after the fact.
Risch has the chops to stack the odds in favor of whatever ends he working toward. As always, he's mum on what those ends may be and we're left deciphering his actions, not his motive.