The Republican senators said during a CNN Town hall contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia should be thoroughly investigated.
By Kristen Mitchell
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said at a CNN town hall event Wednesday night that President Donald Trump understands the threat ISIS, Iran and North Korea pose toward the United States but has a blind spot when it comes to Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is a strongman committed to disrupting democracy around the world, Mr. Graham said, and is not a friend to the United States.
“Vladimir Putin is not a friend to democracy. He is a crook,” Mr. Graham said at Jack Morton Auditorium. “I wish our president, who I want to help, would stand up to Putin and say ‘an attack on one party in America is an attack on all of us.’”
Mr. Graham joined Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for the one-hour, live primetime event moderated by CNN’s Dana Bash, the network’s chief political correspondent and a GW alumna (B.A. ’93). The senators took questions from the audience about the United States’ relationship with Russia, immigration and continuing military action in the Middle East.
Intelligence officials say Russia attempted to interfere in November’s presidential election where Mr. Trump, a Republican, defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Officials have also said the Trump campaign had contacts with Russia prior to November, including allegations Attorney General Jeff Sessions twice met with Russian officials.
If the FBI determines Trump campaign aides had contact with Russia, Mr. Graham, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Mr. Sessions should recuse himself from any related investigation.
“If there were campaign contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign, I want to know about it,” he said. “To my Republican friends, we should have no joy in our heart that the Russian efforts hurt Hillary Clinton, even though they didn’t change the outcome. I promise you we could be next.”
Mr. McCain said that following interference in the 2016 U.S. election, it is important to safeguard the democratic process in upcoming German and French elections. Russian success would be a deathblow to democracy, he said.
Mr. McCain said Mr. Trump’s first address to Congress on Tuesday struck a positive note, but he would have liked to hear more about Russia and the 8,400 American troops fighting in Afghanistan.
Mr. Graham also said he was impressed with Mr. Trump’s address to Congress but cautioned the president about tying the death of Navy Seal Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens to intelligence that will result in military successes. Mr. Owens died during a raid in Yemen shortly after Mr. Trump, who green lighted the plan, took office.
“I’m sure the president is watching,” Mr. Graham said. “You did a really good job last night, we need more of that guy and less of the tweeting guy. That guy can govern the country, but don’t oversell. We’ll see if this changes the course of the war. But whether he did or not, Ryan is a hero.”
Mr. Trump has proposed significant budget cuts across the government to increase military spending, including cuts to State Department foreign aid. Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham, both veterans who have visited Iraq and Afghanistan several times over the last decade, said it’s important for Mr. Trump to understand the significance of “soft power” in unstable regions.
The United States will not be successful using military force alone, Mr. McCain said. Intervening without a governance plan or long-term military presence will only lead to more instability.
During a 2011 uprising the Obama administration ordered military strikes strikes in Libya designed to protect civilians, however failed to provide continued assistance in the months and years following those events. Former President Barack Obama has said failing to plan for what the United States would do after ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi left office was the greatest mistake of his presidency.
Mr. Graham said if Mr. Trump takes diplomatic tools off the table, the United States would not be able to successfully fight terrorism.
“If you take off the table building a small schoolhouse for a poor young girl in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria to give her an education, we’ll never win this war,” he said. “An education to a poor young girl is far more damaging to radical Islam than any bomb.”
A man whose 17-year-old son was killed by an illegal immigrant asked the senators what they would do to end the practice of sanctuary cities. Mr. McCain said the federal government needs to crack down on sanctuary cities, including withholding federal funding if necessary.
“When laws are passed, federal laws that apply to the United States of America, municipalities cannot exempt themselves,” he said.
Young people brought to the country as children should be able to work toward citizenship, Mr. McCain said, and people with criminal records should be deported.
Mr. McCain said the border could be secured by increasing the number of border agents and using drone technology.
Sanctuary cities are a sign of a failed immigration system, Mr. Graham said, and that Mr. Trump will be judged on his ability to solve this problem.