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Opinion: When it comes to challenging Trump on Russia hacking, Democrats should lead from behind

John McCain isn't a fan of Trump, but he can't be accused of participating in a partisan plot.
(Ralph Freso / Associated Press)

If Donald Trump is going to accept the notion that Russia hacked Democratic email accounts in an attempt to help his campaign — and that remains a big if — it will be partly because Republicans in Congress press him to so.

That was clear at Thursday’s hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee at which Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and two other officials bolstered the “Russia did it” theory. That version of events is expected to be further reinforced by a review commissioned by President Obama and in an intelligence briefing the president-elect is scheduled to receive on Friday,

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the committee, called the theft and dissemination of Democratic emails “an unprecedented attack on our democracy.” Addressing Trump, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said: “What I don’t want you to do is undermine those who are serving our nation in this area until you’re absolutely certain they need to be undermined.”

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Neither of these prominent Republicans has been friendly to Trump. McCain said during the campaign that he would write in the name of “some good conservative Republican who is qualified to be president.” Graham said he voted for independent Evan McMullin, a former undercover CIA operative Trump mocked as “Evan McMuffin.”

Still, McCain and Graham can’t be accused of a participating in a Democratic plot to use the hacking scandal as a way to second-guess or delegitimize Trump’s victory. Democrats are subject to that suspicion even when they don’t engage in Trump-bashing — and some of them have a hard time stifling that temptation.

During her questioning, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) raised the question of “who benefits from a president-elect trashing the intelligence community.” She opined that there would be “howls from the Republican side of the aisle” if a Democrat had chosen to “put [Wikileaks’] Julian Assange on a pedestal compared to the men and women of the intelligence community.”

A sarcastic McCain responded: “Thank you for that nonpartisan comment.”

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As the Los Angeles Times observed in an editorial Thursday, Trump has portrayed the allegations against Russia as a partisan “card” played by his political opponents. And even some Republicans not known as Trump supporters spy a partisan ulterior motive in Democratic complaints about hacking.

On Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan said the U.S. wouldn’t condone “any foreign actor, any outside interference from trying to mess with our elections.” But he also struck out at those who would “delegitimize a presidency before it starts.”

Trump has abruptly changed his mind on other things. Remember his belated admission that Obama was born in the United States?

If Democrats want him to execute a similar switch on Russian hacking, they should leave the congressional campaign to change his mind to Republicans such as McCain and Graham. They have a better chance of accomplishing that feat than the party whose candidate he defeated. Or, as Trump would call them, ”losers.”

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