President Trump is not interested in the threat Russia poses to our elections, going by anything he says on the subject.
After being briefed for nearly a year now on unanimous intelligence reports regarding Russia’s assault on the 2016 campaign, Trump remains dismissive. “If [Russian President Vladimir] Putin adamantly denies that he did it, it’s frankly not an issue to the president,” Sam Nunberg, who worked for Trump’s campaign, told the New York Times this weekend. Indeed, the Trump administration is set to reverse a retaliatory action taken by the Obama administration in response to the election meddling and will return compounds in Maryland and New York that Obama had forced the Russians to evacuate.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions doesn’t seem to be losing sleep over it either. The nation’s top cop admitted in testimony recently that he has not read intelligence reports on the subject and has never asked to be brief on it. In the absence of leadership from the executive branch, to whom this burden should belong, Congress needs to step into the void and prepare plans to mitigate future threats, whether members like it or not.
We now know that Russians potentially breached systems in 39 states in last year’s election, and that the attacks were ordered from Putin’s government directly. Last week Time magazine reported the hacks went further than previously understood, in some cases penetrating voter databases and stealing thousands of records with private information such as Social Security numbers. Next time, intelligence officials warn, it will be vote counts, and it’s a certainty Russia knows we have less than 10 true battleground states.
“It was and is within the technical capacity of Russia and other nation states to interfere with our elections and to change votes,” Edward Felten, former deputy chief technology officer under President Obama and now a computer scientist at Princeton University, told NBC News. “We’re fortunate that they chose not to do it.”
Legislation to sanction Russia for meddling in the election is currently making its way through Congress — after a 98-2 vote in the Senate, it now faces consideration in the House. That’s a start, but it won’t help protect a clearly vulnerable election system the American people will have reason to doubt from now on. Nearly a year after the U.S. government learned not only of Russia’s intent to interfere in the presidential election but the extent of their capability, even Putin must be asking, “Where’s the outrage?”
As witness after witness has traipsed through the House and Senate to testify on the subject this year, and questions persist as to whether Trump associates wittingly or unwittingly colluded to aid Russia in its goals, there’s little indication of a plan to act despite all the bipartisan indignation. The long faces of lawmakers from both parties — as intelligence experts have warned Russia used active measures to sow doubt, help spread fake stories that would harm Hillary Clinton, and steal voter data — haven’t inspired a call to arms.
Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat who has introduced the Fight Russian Corruption Act, argues that the threat is pernicious because it goes well beyond cyberattacks to include criminal funding streams aiding extreme candidates throughout Europe, and other “economic warfare” tactics to further Putin’s goals. Suozzi, who has attracted bipartisan co-sponsors in Republican Reps. Pete Roskam and French Hill along with fellow Democrat Rep. Gregory Meeks, wants Congress to send a message to Putin that the United States won’t be intimidated.
“When a rogue nation threatens to undermine democratic governments and has taken bold steps toward trying to influence election outcomes in democracies across the world, including ours, we need to show some urgency and do something about it, not sit around and wait for something bad to happen again,” Suozzi said. “Party politics shouldn’t matter for something this important.”
All eyes will be on President Trump’s meeting with Putin at the G-20 meeting next month, and both Republicans and Democrats hope he will, sometime before that, make a statement either criticizing the interference or announcing steps to protect against it. Yet even Republicans don’t expect that to happen. In the last few days Trump’s point of view has evolved from denial to acceptance, but resolve appears far off.
Over the weekend, what was formerly a “phony witch hunt” and “hoax” that Democrats cooked up as an excuse for losing the election, according to Trump, suddenly turned into something real — and worth criticizing his predecessor over. Read one of several tweets on the topic: “Just out: the Obama administration knew far in advance of November 8th about election meddling by Russia. Did nothing about it. WHY?”
Trump is now in charge and doing nothing about it. Why? As the Russians work to perfect their active measures, largely successful in 2016, and our president shirks his responsibility to combat an unprecedented and urgent threat to our democracy, Congress must step up to act.