By Ginger Gibson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two senior Republican senators urged President-elect Donald Trump to punish Russia in response to U.S. intelligence agencies' conclusion that President Vladimir Putin personally directed efforts aimed at influencing the outcome of the November election.
In a joint appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain said evidence was conclusive that Putin sought to influence the election - a point that Trump has refuted repeatedly by arguing it might be impossible to tell who was responsible.
"In a couple weeks, Donald Trump will be the defender of the free world and democracy," Graham said. "You should let everybody know in America, Republicans and Democrats, that you're going to make Russia pay a price for trying to interfere."
Both senators said they remain unsure if they will support Trump's pick for secretary of state, former Exxon Mobil Corp <XOM.N> Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson, who has been criticized for his close ties to Putin. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on Wednesday to consider Tillerson's nomination.
Three U.S. intelligence agencies released a joint report on Friday that concluded that Putin directed efforts to help Trump's electoral chances by discrediting his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Hackers penetrated the Democratic National Committee's email server and separately stole emails from John Podesta, who chaired Clinton's campaign. The emails were then posted online and used to embarrass Clinton, including by Trump who frequently used the content as political ammunition.
Russia was trying to undermine public faith in the democratic process, damage Clinton, making it harder for her to win and harm her presidency if she did, the unclassified report said.
McCain said he supports continued investigations into the hacks.
"We need to come to grips with it and get to the bottom of it and overall come up with a strategy in this new form of warfare that can basically harm our economy, harm our elections, harm our national security," he said.
Trump, whose views on Russia are out of step with his party, has repeatedly dismissed claims that the Russians were trying to help him, arguing that the charges against Russia are the product of his political opponents trying to undermine his victory.
On Friday, after receiving his intelligence briefing, Trump did not squarely address whether he was told of the agencies' belief Russia carried out the hacking.
Instead, he said: "Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations" including the DNC.
On Saturday, Trump wrote on Twitter that having a better relationship with Russia is a "good thing."
"Only 'stupid' people or fools, would think that is bad!" he tweeted. "We have enough problems around the world without yet another one. When I am President, Russia will respect us far more than they do now and both countries will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the WORLD!"
(Reporting by Ginger Gibson; Editing by Mary Milliken)