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CIA report on Russian election hacking leaves GOP leaders facing an impossible choice

The Washington Post is now reporting that the CIA has concluded something widely suspected but never flatly stated by the intelligence community: That Russia moved deliberately to help elect Donald Trump as president of the United States -- not just to undermine the U.S. political process more generally.

The Post's report cites officials who say they have identified individuals connected to the Russian government who gave WikiLeaks emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and top Hillary Clinton aide John Podesta. One official described the conclusion that this was intended to help Trump as "the consensus view."

The report highlights and exacerbates the increasingly fraught situation in which congressional Republicans find themselves with regard to Russia and Trump. By acknowledging and digging into the increasing evidence that Russia helped -- or at least attempted to help -- tip the scales in Trump's favor, they risk raising questions about whether Trump would have won without Russian intervention.

Trump, after all, won by a margin of about 80,000 votes cast across three states, winning each of the decisive states by less than 1 percentage point. So even a slight influence could have plausibly made the difference, though we'll never be able to prove it one way or another.

While saying that Russia clearly tried to help Trump doesn't inherently call into question the legitimacy of Trump's win -- the White House made sure to emphasize that it's not making that case earlier Friday -- it's not hard to connect the dots. And Trump and his party know it. The Post's report cited Republicans who expressed skepticism about the available evidence when presented with it in September, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

In addition, any GOP effort to dig into the matter risks antagonizing the president-elect, who has said flatly that he doesn't believe Russia interfered with the election, despite receiving intelligence briefings to the contrary. And he's proven more than willing to go after fellow Republicans who run afoul of him.

On the other hand, if Republicans downplay the issue, they risk giving a pass to an antagonistic foreign power whom significant majorities of Americans and members of Congress don't trust and who, if the evidence is accurate, wields significant power to wage successful cyber warfare with the United States.

Already, House Democrats have begun pushing for something akin to the 9/11 Commission to look into allegations of Russian meddling. During the campaign, they pushed for hearings on the same issue.

Until this week, they'd been unable to get much buy-in from congressional Republicans. But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., voiced support for a probe on Wednesday, and now Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., says he is working with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., on a wide-ranging Senate probe, as The Post's Karoun Demirjian reported Thursday.

"I'm going after Russia in every way you can go after Russia," Graham said. "I think they're one of the most destabilizing influences on the world stage. I think they did interfere with our elections, and I want [Russian President Vladimir] Putin personally to pay the price."

But even as these probes start to materialize, Trump is singing a far different tune. In his interview with Time magazine for his "Person of the Year" award, Trump suggested the interference could just as well have come from someone in New Jersey as from the Russian government.

"I don't believe they interfered," Trump said. "That became a laughing point -- not a talking point, a laughing point. Any time I do something, they say, 'Oh, Russia interfered.'"

Trump added: "It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey."

Trump also maintained over and over again on the campaign trail that he wanted a better relationship with Russia and praised Putin as a strong leader - while downplaying Russia's favoritism for his campaign. And he did all of this at a time when Putin was very unpopular in the United States and even as the evidence was pointing in the direction of Russian meddling.

In other words, Trump has shown he's committed to seeing the best in Russia, and it's unlikely another report from the "dishonest media" citing anonymous sources is going to change his mind.

And Trump has every reason to continue to dig in. He doesn't want to breathe any life into the storyline that his election owes to Russian interference. Trump, after all, is a winner, and the idea that someone else might have won it for him just won't fly.

In a statement Friday night, Trump's transition team, as expected, took a defiant tone about The Post's report: "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It's now time to move on and 'Make America Great Again.' "

But for congressional Republicans, the evidence is increasingly getting to the point where they simply can't ignore it and some of them are feeling compelled to act - in a way that Trump isn't likely to take kindly to.

Compounding the dilemma for these Republicans is the fact that many GOP and Trump voters are disinclined to believe Russia meddled in the election. A poll released Friday by Democratic pollster Democracy Corps showed 55 percent of Trump voters and Republicans who didn't vote for Trump say it's probably true that stories alleging Russian interference in the election are conspiracy theories pushed by Clinton.

Many Republicans are undoubtedly concerned about this. But as long as Trump is holding fast to the idea that this is all made up in an effort to undermine him, this whole thing could reinforce the longstanding chasm within the GOP, with him and his base pitted against establishment Republicans who will (again) be made to look like they're trying to take down their outsider president-elect. And you can bet that'll be how Trump pitches it.

It all presents a possibly inauspicious start for the GOP Congress in the Trump era: A potential Trump vs. congressional Republicans battle over he same election that surprisingly installed him as president.