House intel chief sets up showdown over allegation Russia helped Trump

Unhappy with conflicting reports about Russian interference in the presidential election that have been leaked to the news media, the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has demanded an explanation from James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, setting the stage for a tense few days on Capitol Hill.

Prior to the election, the Intelligence Community, loosely organized under the DNI, issued a joint statement saying that the agencies were confident that computer hackers who stole information from the Democratic National Committee and high-ranking individual Democrats were working at the direction of the Kremlin. At the time, the effort was characterized as an attempt to "interfere with the U.S. election process."

RELATED: What Putin and Trump have said about each other

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At the end of 2015, Vladimir Putin lauded Trump's presidential campaign, calling him "an absolute leader of the presidential race, as we see it." 
In response to Putin's compliments Trump said: "It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond."
Putin has called Trump a "very outstanding man" and "unquestionably talented."
When Russia continued its military buildup in Syria and Putin backed the country's President Bashar al-Assad in 2015, Trump declared the Russian leader earned an "A" in leadership. 
Trump not only gave the Russian leader an "A," he also said Putin has been a better leader than US President Barack Obama. "He is really very much of a leader," Trump said of Putin. "The man has very strong control over his country. Now, it's a very different system, and I don't happen to like the system, but certainly in that system he's been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader." 
At a national security forum in September, Trump explained his friendly relationship with Putin saying: "If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him." 
When asked about allegations that Putin orchestrated the deaths of his political opponents and journalists, Trump defended Putin: "I haven't seen any evidence that he killed anybody."
After Trump won the election November 8, Putin sent the president-elect a telegram congratulating him on his victory. 
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Late last week, though, a report in TheNew York Times cited unnamed sources within the Central Intelligence Agency that claimed their analysis had reached a further conclusion: that Russia had specifically intended, through its hacking operation, to help Donald Trump win the presidential election. The finding was apparently bolstered by evidence -- again from unnamed sources -- that hackers had gained access to the Republican National Committee's computer system as well as the DNC's, but had not released any information from it. (The RNC has strongly denied that its systems were compromised.)

It was an explosive allegation that would undercut the legitimacy of the incoming administration, and President-elect Trump immediately pushed back against it, denigrating the competence of the CIA in an official statement from his transition team, and unequivocally denying that the RNC had been hacked.

Later reports citing sources within the Federal Bureau of Investigation suggested that the CIA's conclusion was not unanimously shared within the Intelligence Community. The FBI, the unnamed sources reported, did not share the CIA's confidence about Russia's specific motives in sponsoring the hacking.

The letter from House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes expresses frustration with DNI Clapper, and demands clarification by the end of this week.

"In light of the Committee's robust oversight efforts on these issues, I was dismayed that we did not learn earlier, from you directly, about the reported conflicting assessments and the CIA's reported revision of information previously conveyed to this Committee," the letter reads. "The Committee therefore has an urgent need to accurately understand the current IC assessment of alleged Russian cyber activities relating to the election, and any disagreements among IC components."

The letter goes on to demand a briefing and a written statement, by the end of the week, clarifying the position of the IC. Additionally, Nunes cited his concern about the leaks to the press, and demanded an assessment of whether or not classified material was supplied to reporters.

RELATED: Trump's official picks for cabinet and administration positions

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Trump's official picks for Cabinet and administration positions

Counselor to the President: Kellyanne Conway

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Veterans Affairs Secretary: David Shulkin

(Photo credit DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)

Transportation secretary: Elaine Chao

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Energy secretary: Rick Perry

(Photo credit KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson

 REUTERS/Daniel Kramer

Secretary of Defense: Retired Marine General James Mattis

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Chief of staff: Reince Priebus

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Chief strategist: Steve Bannon

(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Attorney General: Senator Jeff Sessions

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Director of the CIA: Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Deputy national security adviser: K.T. McFarland

(Photo by Michael Schwartz/Getty Images)

White House counsel: Donald McGahn

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Ambassador to the United Nations: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley

(Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Education secretary: Betsy DeVos

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Commerce secretary: Wilbur Ross

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Homeland security secretary: General John Kelly

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Housing and urban development secretary: Ben Carson

(Photo credit NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Health and human services secretary: Tom Price

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Department of Homeland Security: Retired General John Kelly

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Secretary of agriculture: Sonny Perdue

(BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Nunes letter comes at an extraordinarily sensitive time in Washington.

In one of the first major rifts between President-elect Trump and senior Republicans in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday publicly backed a call by a bipartisan group of senators for a full investigation into Russian interference in the election.

(Nunes, by contrast, said in a separate statement on Monday that he did not "not see any benefit in opening further investigations...which would duplicate current committee oversight efforts and Intelligence Community inquiries.")

Trump, by contrast, has said that he does not believe Russia was involved in the hacking at all, calling the idea "ridiculous" and has questioned the integrity of the Intelligence Community, accusing the various of agencies of reaching politically motivated conclusions.

Trump has long been criticized for his accommodative stance toward Russia in general and its President, Vladimir Putin, in particular. He has downplayed Russia's invasion of Ukraine's Crimea region and its prosecution of a shadow war in Eastern Ukraine, and has appeared to praise Putin's authoritarian style of rule at home.

On Tuesday morning, Trump made the official announcement that he has chosen Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his nominee for Secretary of State. Tillerson is said to have a close personal relationship with Putin, and has been awarded the Kremlin's Order of Friendship.

"The thing I like best about Rex Tillerson is that he has vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments," Trump said on Twitter.

However, at a time when Congress is investigating Russian interference in the presidential election, Tillerson's Putin connections may complicate his nomination.

On Monday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which would have to confirm Tillerson, tweeted, ""Being a 'friend of Vladimir' is not an attribute I am hoping for from a Secretary of State."

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