On the same day a top aide to President-elect Donald Trump said the White House may have disproportionately punished Russia by ordering the expulsion of 35 diplomats, Republican Senator John McCain reaffirmed his conviction that the United States could only improve its relations with Russia by taking a tougher stance on President Putin, calling for stronger sanctions against Moscow.
On Sunday, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed to ABC's "This Week" that Trump will be asking questions of U.S. intelligence agencies after President Barack Obama imposed sanctions last week over what he said was their involvement in hacking political groups in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Obama also ordered Russia to vacate two U.S. facilities as part of the tough sanctions on Russia.
"One of the questions that we have is why the magnitude of this? I mean you look at 35 people being expelled, two sites being closed down, the question is, is that response in proportion to the actions taken? Maybe it was; maybe it wasn't but you have to think about that," Spicer said.
But on a tour of the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia, McCain and other senators assured the former Soviet-dominated countries on Sunday that the U.S. would support them, despite President-elect Donald Trump's praise of Putin and expressions of doubts about NATO.
"We will strongly urge our colleagues toward more meaningful and stronger sanctions against Russia because of their attack on the United States of America," McCain told reporters in Georgia's capital Tbilisi.
"I believe that we must continue to improve our relations and to understand that Vladimir Putin — unless we stand up to him — will continue his aggression and we must stand up to Vladimir Putin," McCain said.
Reinforcing the line, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, travelling with McCain and others, also said it was time "to push back against Putin, to be a better friend to our allies here including Georgia."
"So 2017 is a year of offense and we're going to tell our colleagues what's at stake if we don't push back," Graham said.
The comments follow Trump signaling he might take a softer line with Moscow and on Friday, the president-elect congratulated Putin for not retaliating to Obama's expulsions, tweeting: "Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!