The biggest takeaway from Robert Mueller’s appearances on Capitol Hill is not that Donald Trump may have obstructed justice, although that’s what most people continue to argue about.
It’s that Russians are still interfering in US elections.
“They’re doing it as we sit here,” Mueller told lawmakers of Russian interference. Earlier he’d said how that aspect of his investigation has been underplayed will have a long-term effect on the US.
In his report, the former special counsel disclosed that Russian hackers compromised local election systems of two Florida counties in 2016, a development later confirmed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, although he said no votes were changed. And while Mueller did not bring conspiracy charges, it’s been well documented that Russians in 2016 were doing their best to help Trump, not Clinton, win.
Yet despite Mueller’s testimony, the special counsel report and alarming statements from elsewhere in Washington, public urgency on addressing Russian interference for the 2020 election appears lacking.
On Wednesday, Mississippi Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith blocked consideration of a trio of House-passed bills focused on election security.
Democrats plan to make election security a 2020 issue.
“Russians massively intervened in 2016 and they are prepared to do so again in voting that is set to begin a mere eight months from now,” said House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, pointing out the one thing the Mueller report makes absolutely clear.
“(The) President seems to welcome the help again,” Schiff alleged, adding, “And so we must make all efforts to harden our elections infrastructure, to ensure there is a paper trail for all voting, to deter the Russians from meddling, to discover it when they do, to disrupt it and make them pay.”
It’s not just lawmakers and Mueller saying the Russians want to meddle again. FBI Director Christopher Wray said it during his own testimony on Capitol Hill Tuesday, but he said the bureau has the problem in hand.
“The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections through the foreign influence,” Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee. And he added they’re still at it. “Well, my view is until they stop, they haven’t been deterred enough.”
He said that the FBI handles efforts to deter foreign influence and they don’t need any new laws to help.
Trump joked with Russian President Vladimir Putin this year about it.
“Don’t meddle in the election, please,”he said, smirking, when the two met on the sidelines of a G-20 meeting in Japan in June.
Wray argued the government has significant resources devoted to combating foreign influence, but couldn’t think of anything else they need.
But it is very much an active cyber war.
Microsoft said Russians sought unsuccessfully to hack the staffers in the US Senate and think tanks that advocate a tougher approach to Russia. Ahead of the 2018 elections, the US intelligence community issued a stark warning that Russia continued to try to influence US elections and the Washington Post reported US Cyber Command disrupted internet access for Russian troll farms on Election Day in 2018.
Last September, Trump signed an executive order declaring election and infrastructure meddling a national security threat. By then, Mueller had already indicted Russians alleged to have been involved with the 2016 effort — but the administration did not sanction those and other Russians until March of 2019, barely meeting a deadline set by Congress. At that time the government also disclosed Russian efforts to penetrate the US energy grid, suggesting election hacks are only part of the threat.
The efforts extend beyond the US. In March, the cybersecurity firm FireEye said the same groups suspected of hacking the US Democratic party in 2016 was targeting European parliamentary elections that took place in May.
Prosecutors in Italy have opened an investigation into whether an Italian political party sought help from Russia during those elections.
The Director of National Intelligence recently announced the appointment of a new official to coordinate responses to foreign influence.
Democrats say the spreading of false information and other efforts by Russians to interfere are a massive and continuing issue. While leaders in the party are split over whether to pursue impeachment hearings against Trump for obstructing justice, they are united behind a new proposal to secure elections.
And there is bipartisan support for efforts to make campaign ads more truthful and to require citizens to report offers of election help for foreign actors.
But these proposals seem to be going absolutely nowhere at the moment.
That’s because the Republicans in the Senate who control what’s voted on in that chamber, don’t think any such bill is necessary. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell feels elections should be controlled and safeguarded at the local level rather than managed by Washington, according to a recent CNN report on his thinking.
Democratic senators came to the floor shortly after 6 p.m. ET Wednesday to ask for unanimous consent to pass three different election security bills they have authored, two of which would require campaigns to report to federal authorities any attempts by foreign entities to interfere in US elections, and a third aimed at protecting from hackers the personal accounts and devices of senators and some staffers.
In keeping with GOP arguments that Congress has already responded to election security needs for the upcoming election, Hyde-Smith of Mississippi objected to each unanimous consent request.
Democrats, after Mueller’s testimony, will redouble their efforts to get some action from McConnell, but he’s already argued that Congress gave new election security money to states after 2016.
“The Democrats would like to nationalize everything,” McConnell said on Fox News in June. “They want the federal government to take over the election process because they think that would somehow benefit them.”
That election security has taken on such a partisan tinge might be some of the lasting effect on US democracy that Mueller is talking about.