The top Republican on the House Committee on Homeland Security said Tuesday that he "cautioned" Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the wake of the GOP candidate’s friendly overtures toward Russian president Vladimir Putin.
When asked about Trump’s friendly statements about Putin following a national security event in Washington, D.C., Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas) said he informed the candidate’s campaign that Putin is not a "friend" to the United States.
Trump has repeatedly described Putin as a strong leader, saying at a national security forum two weeks ago that the Russian president has been "far more" of a leader than Barack Obama.
"With respect to Mr. Trump, I think he in his own way respects Putin as sort of a ‘strong man,’ if you will, and envisions himself in the same way, and feels like he is in a better position than Hillary to negotiate with him," McCaul said. "You have to have a strong military to have peace through strength, and I think he feels like he can stare down Putin more strongly than Hillary."
"Having said that, I cautioned the campaign that Mr. Putin is not our friend. He does not have our own best interests at heart," the Texas representative continued.
The leading Republican also said that Russia is second only to the United States in its capacity to target adversaries in cyber attacks. He pointed to several instances of Russians targeting American systems and interfering with networks in Europe to emphasize the cyber threat posed by Moscow.
"Russia targeted Home Depot with credit card theft," said McCaul, pointing to a 2014 breach tied to Russian and Ukrainian hackers. "We see a lot of organized criminal behavior coming out of Russia in the cyber realm. But they also have nation-state capabilities. They are probably next to the United States, the most powerful cyber offensive capability."
He also referred to allegations that Russian hackers targeted the Democratic National Committee earlier this year, a breach that resulted in thousands of internal emails being leaked online.
"We see them shut down countries like Estonia, they shut down power in Ukraine. They have meddled in elections in the past. Without getting into all the details, attempts have been made by the Russians in that regard," McCaul stated.
Russia has denied involvement in the DNC hack, which Hillary Clinton’s campaign seized on as evidence of Moscow’s efforts to help Trump win the election. Reports suggest that the Russian hackers behind the DNC breach also targeted Republican lawmakers.
McCaul went on to emphasize that Russia’s interests abroad are "far different" than those of the United States, citing the ceasefire deal in Syria brokered between Washington and Moscow that has faltered in recent days as both sides blamed one another for renewed violence. Russia is intent on backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a key ally to Moscow, while the United States has sought Assad’s removal as the only solution to the years-long civil war in Syria.
The White House blamed Russia on Tuesday for an airstrike targeting a convoy delivering humanitarian aid west of Aleppo, days after a U.S. airstrike against ISIS targets mistakenly hit Syrian troops.
"Their interests in Iraq and Syria [are] far different from ours and I think you’re seeing that play out. The ceasefire is now falling apart before our very eyes. Their interest is not really to go after ISIS, although I wish they would, but it’s to prop up Assad and the only way to do that is going for rebel forces that are fighting them."
McCaul said 95 percent of the airstrikes launched by Russia have targeted U.S.-backed rebel forces fighting ISIS. He also described the Obama administration’s military strategy in Syria as a "complete failure," saying that it has enabled Russian intervention in the region.
"It’s inaction, and now the Russians are in there defeating the very forces that we have tried to build up to defeat ISIS," McCaul said.
McCaul spoke to journalists Tuesday afternoon following an event at the American Enterprise Institute during which he unveiled his committee’s new policy agenda to combat Islamic extremism at home and abroad.
The event took place one day after authorities arrested Ahmad Khan Rahami, a naturalized American citizen born in Afghanistan, for setting off bombs in New York and New Jersey over the weekend.
McCaul has previously knocked Trump for making positive statements about Putin. He has also criticized Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States to prevent Islamic militants from infiltrating America’s borders.
McCaul said at Tuesday’s event that he and Rudy Giuliani, a former mayor of New York City and Trump campaign surrogate, penned a memo for Trump describing the proposed Muslim ban as "not realistic."