Russia pulled off an unprecedented and wildly-successful campaign to influence America’s political conversation during last year’s presidential campaign, according to experts who testified Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Russia hopes to win the second Cold War through the force of politics, as opposed to the politics of force,” said cyber security expert Clinton Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Watts detailed Russia’s use of cyber attacks and an elaborate disinformation campaign to confuse U.S. voters and pit Americans against each other.
The testimony confirmed what lawmakers of both parties have been saying for months.
“Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a deliberate campaign carefully constructed to undermine our election,” said the committee’s top Democrat, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia.
WATCH: Warner on Russia’s actions during 2016 election campaign
Ahead of the open hearing, Putin blasted accusations of Russian electoral meddling as “provocations and lies.” Asked on a television program whether Moscow tried to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, Putin said, “Read my lips: no.”
Witnesses before the Intelligence Committee described voluminous and incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.
“The [Russian] activities in the United States… do seem to be exceptional,” said Georgetown University security and intelligence expert Roy Godson, adding that cyber and disinformation campaigns allow Russia to “hit above their weight” on the world stage.
Watts said Russia was aided last year by U.S. media outlets that reported extensively on material hacked by Russia that appeared on outlets like Wikileaks, as well as occasions when the Trump campaign parroted disinformation Moscow disseminated about his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. He added that Russia could one day turn its informational firepower against Trump.
“It [Russian actions] is solely based on what they want to achieve… whatever the Russian foreign policy objectives are,” Watts said. “They will turn on President Trump, as well. They win because they play both sides.”
The hearing was the first of many the committee expects to hold in coming months, some open to the public, but many behind closed doors. Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, repeatedly has pledged an impartial and exhaustive search for the truth, and he has implored fellow-committee members to refrain from partisan jabs.
“If we politicize this process, our efforts will likely fail,” Burr said.
WATCH: Burr on public’s need to know extent of Russia’s actions
Warner echoed the call, saying the goal of the investigation is not to re-litigate last year’s election but rather to hold Russia accountable.
But one Democrat argued, if the committee is determined to illuminating any ties President Donald Trump’s inner circle may have to Russia, the president himself must release his tax returns.
“They key to a successful investigation is following the money,” said Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. “Information about Donald Trump’s finances may lead to Russia.”
Trump has adamantly denied any links to Russia during or after the campaign, questioned U.S. intelligence about Russian meddling, and accused media outlets of mounting a smear campaign against him. Even so, the White House acknowledged the need for investigations to proceed.
“We want this over as much as, I think, some of you. But we recognize that there’s a process that has to take place,” said White House spokesman Sean Spicer.
Thursday’s hearing brought the Senate Intelligence Committee into the spotlight after its counterpart in the House of Representatives canceled scheduled hearings amid a war of words between it’s chairman, Republican Devin Nunez, and the ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff, both of California.
The House Committee has been in disarray since Representative Nunez personally briefed Trump on classified material he had yet to share with the committee. Nunez has dismissed calls by Schiff and others that he recuse himself from the House probe.