GOP Sen. Lankford: ‘I will step in’ if Biden doesn’t start receiving intel briefings

Deirdre Shesgreen and Matthew Brown, USA TODAY
·7 min read

WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans broke with the Trump administration Thursday to argue that President-elect Joe Biden should get access to high-level classified intelligence briefings, even though the president continues to contest the election results.

Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, said he will intervene on Friday if the Trump administration doesn’t start allowing Biden to receive what's known as the president's daily brief, a summary of the most urgent and credible national security threats.

Incoming presidents typically have access to those assessments during the transition, so they can be prepared to deal with any national security threats on day one.

"This needs to occur so that regardless of the outcome of the election, whichever way that it goes, people can be ready for that actual task," Lankford told Tulsa radio station KRMG-AM on Wednesday.

“If that’s not occurring by Friday, I will step in,” said Lankford, who sits on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

A bevy of other Republican senators, including Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; John Cornyn, R-Texas; and Ron Johnson, R-Wis.; agreed.

"If in fact he does win in the end, I think they need to be able to hit the ground running," said Cornyn, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "I just don’t know any justification for withholding the briefing."

Johnson, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, told reporters that he would have "no problem" with Biden receiving the briefings.

White House spokesman Judd Deere said the Trump administration "is following all statutory requirements." He declined to elaborate.

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The GOP shift comes amid a broader, behind-the-scenes tussle between the president and Senate Republicans over the fate of CIA director Gina Haspel. Trump's allies are reportedly pushing for Haspel's ouster, while Senate Republicans have come to her defense.

Trump has long distrusted and derided the intelligence community. On Tuesday, Arthur Schwartz, a New York public relations consultant who is close to Donald Trump Jr., accused Haspel of undermining the president, though he did not specify how.

"Why the hell are Republican senators trying to manipulate @realDonaldTrump into keeping Gina Haspel, who undermines Trump and subverts his agenda at every turn?" Schwartz tweeted.

He singled out three high-ranking GOP senators – Cornyn, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – and said they were "getting played by a master case officer."

Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, said the Haspel fight appears to be related to a push by Trump and his allies to declassify intelligence they believe would undercut the conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to boost Trump's campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton. Haspel is resisting that for fear it would expose vital U.S. intelligence secrets.

"The president wants to release information that would compromise sources and methods" to serve his own political interests, said King, who sits on the intelligence panel.

"This is serious business on two levels. It could very easily compromise our ability to obtain information and intelligence, which is critical. And it could endanger people's lives."

McConnell met with Haspel in his Capitol Hill office on Tuesday, an unusual private session that drew the attention of reporters. They both declined to say what the meeting was about, but McConnell is a strong backer of Haspel and may have been signaling his opposition to her ouster.

Cornyn, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, took a more public stance.

"Intelligence should not be partisan. Not about manipulation, it is about preserving impartial, nonpartisan information necessary to inform policy makers" and so they can protect the U.S., Cornyn posted in response to Schwartz's tweet.

Cornyn's remark prompted a fierce response from Trump Jr. He suggested Cornyn and the other GOP senators were "taking a trained liar's word" on the dust-up instead of consulting with others in the White House, such as Trump's chief of staff Mark Meadows or national security adviser Robert O'Brien.

The intraparty GOP fight comes as many experts warn that Trump's refusal to concede and allow Biden to begin his transition could harm national security.

"Our adversaries aren't waiting for the transition to take place," former Rep. Mike Rogers, who chaired the House Intelligence Committee when he was in Congress, tweeted this week in urging for Biden's access to critical intelligence information.

"He needs to know what the latest threats are & begin to plan accordingly," Rogers said. "This isn't about politics; this is about national security."

King said Republicans who continue resist giving Biden access to the briefings are endangering the country.

"The transition is inherently a dangerous period," King said. "It’s a period when adversaries view us as vulnerable." He noted that the Sept. 11 commission found that the 36-day delay between the Clinton and Bush administrations slowed President George W. Bush's ability to vet and obtain Senate confirmation for key appointees.

"There are clear national security implications here, and you want the incoming administration to be as fully as informed as possible about where the danger areas are," he said.

So far, a key Trump appointee has refused to affirm Biden's electoral win, preventing the president-elect's team from beginning its official transition. Emily Murphy, head of the federal General Services Administration, has yet to sign off on an official declaration recognizing Biden's victory – blocking his access to critical information and funding his team needs to prepare for the transfer of power.

In a statement, the GSA said the agency "does not pick the winner in the presidential election." Under federal law and precedent, the GSA administrator "ascertains the apparent successful candidate once a winner is clear based on the process laid out in the Constitution," the agency said.

The White House could give a green light for Biden to receive the presidential intelligence briefings.

Lankford, a member of the Senate Oversight Committee, said he has “already started engaging in this area.” He noted President Bill Clinton made available briefings to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000, even though that election was much closer and hotly contested for weeks after voting ended.

Most Republican lawmakers have refused to acknowledge Biden's victory and backed Trump's refusal to allow the transition to begin. And Lankford reiterated that position in a tweet after his radio interview.

Trump is "fully in his right to ask for recounts and for every legal question to be fully vetted and resolved," he tweeted Wednesday evening. "It is important for the 71 million Americans that voted for President Trump that at the end of all this their questions are answered."

Still, Lankford is not alone in his push for Biden to be allowed to ramp up his official transition. Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election Saturday. States will certify their election results in the coming weeks.

Rubio, the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said any declaration from the GSA would not undercut the legal claims that President Donald Trump’s campaign is making in several states. Trump has claimed, without evidence, that voter fraud and other irregularities cost him the election.

"We need to have that contingency in place," Rubio told Bloomberg News this week. "I don't think allowing the GSA to move forward on some of the transition work prejudices in any way any of the legal claims the president intends to make."

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has also argued that Biden should be allowed to begin the transition process, saying it's a matter of U.S. national security.

"It's very much in our national interest, in our foreign policy interest, national security interest, to make sure that if there's a new team that may become the leadership team, that they be given all access as quickly as possible," Romney told NBC News.

McConnell, who has not acknowledged Biden's victory, said that Trump is "100% within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options."

Biden said Trump's fraud allegations are baseless and his unwillingness to concede is "an embarrassment," but insisted it will not impede the transition.

“We are already beginning the transition," he said. "Nothing’s going to stop that."

More:

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'It's an embarrassment': Joe Biden responds to Donald Trump's refusal to concede presidential race

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: GOP Sen. Lankford says Biden should start receiving intel briefings