Several of President Donald Trump's nominees for key ambassador posts declined Thursday to say unequivocally whether Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
Their unwillingness to say definitively that Moscow meddled troubled a few members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said America's envoys need to firmly and plainly back U.S. objectives in their overseas posts. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded Russia pried, they said, and Congress is on the verge of passing a Russia sanctions bill aimed at punishing Moscow's meddling and its military aggression.
"We need to have our ambassadors abroad making clear, unequivocal advocacy in the countries in which they are assigned to, to join us in our multilateral sanctions effort," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. The bill also would impose new sanctions on Iran.
Lewis Eisenberg, the financier Trump picked to be the U.S. envoy to Italy, told the committee he'd prefer to "reserve judgment" on whether Moscow interfered until ongoing investigations are completed. The House and Senate intelligence panels are examining the extent of Russia's meddling, and former FBI Director Robert Mueller is leading a separate inquiry into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow.
So despite U.S. intelligence agencies concluding Russia interfered, "you still don't have a view?" asked Menendez, who had pressed the nominees to answer yes or no if they believed Russia interfered in the campaign.
"I think it's likely," Eisenberg said. "But I do believe there are investigations that are going on to corroborate that."
New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, selected by Trump to be the ambassador to the United Kingdom, said he hasn't "studied the evidence on the inside," so he can only go by what he reads.
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"It looks like it could have happened," Johnson said. "Maybe it did happen. If I did a complete analysis with all the information, I'd be able to give you a much better answer."
Kelly Knight Craft, nominated by Trump to be the ambassador to Canada, said based on the publicly available material she's read, "it looks as if, yes."
Kay Bailey Hutchison, the former Texas senator Trump chose to be his ambassador to NATO, said there is a "good likelihood, yes" that Russia interfered. She said it is important to know the extent of Russia's interference and how it was carried out.
Only K.T. McFarland, Trump's former deputy national security adviser, gave a one word response to Menendez's question: "Yes," she said. The president nominated McFarland to be ambassador to Singapore.
Menendez said after the hearing he was disappointed all the answers weren't as unambiguous as McFarland's.
"It should have been a slam dunk for each one of them," he said.