One of the biggest points that former Special Counsel Robert Mueller made during his House testimony on Wednesday was about Russian election interference: He warned that it was a major problem in 2016 and emphasized that it could be just as bad in 2020.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy,” Mueller said. “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious.”
Senate Republicans, however, seemingly weren’t listening.
Shortly following Mueller’s appearance in the House on Wednesday, Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) sought to leverage his testimony and urged a vote on a package of election security bills, including the FIRE Act, which would require all political campaigns to report contact from a foreign government to the FBI. Each bill they proposed was quickly shut down by Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS).
This is, of course, not the first time Republicans have blocked Democratic efforts to put stronger election security restrictions in place as the 2020 election rapidly approaches. While the upper chamber has actually passed two somewhat related bills in recent weeks — one which prevents anyone convicted of election meddling to obtain a visa and another that deems hacking into an election a federal crime — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has strongly opposed the consideration of other bills on the subject.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), chair of the Senate Rules Committee, which oversees aspects of election administration, laid out McConnell’s opposition during a hearing earlier this year. “I think the majority leader just is of the view that this debate reaches no conclusion,” Blunt said, noting that he didn’t see the point in considering any election security bills in committee if they simply weren’t going to go anywhere.
McConnell’s decision is likely driven by a few factors: He’s acknowledging President Donald Trump’s aversion to the subject — which the president sees as too closely tied to questions about the outcome of the 2016 election — and he’s maintaining concerns he’s long held about getting the federal government too involved in states’ efforts.
Blunt has previously also tried to shift the blame to House Democrats, explaining that the “extreme” nature of HR 1 — a sweeping anti-corruption bill championed by Democrats that contains tenets on election security — made it even less likely that McConnell would consider such measures. In an interview with McClatchy in April, Blunt noted that his party was concerned Democrats would use an election security bill to introduce additional amendments addressing issues raised in HR 1, such as voting rights.
McConnell’s unwillingness to tackle election security isn’t just sending a political message, however; it also has massive consequences.
As a result of this inaction, the US Senate — which allocated $380 million in election security funds last year — is now effectively promoting a do-nothing approach to a subject that Mueller and countless national security officials have raised as a serious threat that requires additional action. While US intelligence agencies and other bodies are doing what they can to bolster American defenses before the 2020 election, Republican leadership appears content to sit idly by despite numerous warnings about the need for more resources to prevent potential breaches.
“They are doing it as we sit here,” Mueller said regarding Russian interference efforts on Wednesday. “And they expect to do it again during the next campaign.”
As Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) explicitly stated during a hearing with Attorney General Bill Barr in May, the cue to stymie such legislation has been coming directly from the White House. “It was Don McGahn,” Klobuchar said during the hearing while discussing the forces that blocked a bipartisan election security bill she’s co-sponsored with Sen. James Lankford (R-OK). “He called Republicans about the bill, didn’t want them to do it. And McConnell also didn’t want the bill to move forward. So it was a double-edged thing.”
President Trump’s position on such bills — and McConnell’s longstanding resistance to advancing them — could mean that they’ll remain stalled.
Experts have repeatedly warned about the ongoing threat from Russia in 2020
Acknowledgment of the threat Russia could pose to US elections in 2020 has come from all sides of the aisle.
“Russia’s ongoing efforts to interfere with our democracy are dangerous and disturbing,” McConnell has even noted in the wake of Mueller’s probe. FBI Director Christopher Wray this past spring called 2018 the “dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020.” And Mueller highlighted the many ways that Russian operatives sought to interfere in the 2016 election via social media, hacked emails, and exploitation of local election systems as part of his comprehensive 400-page report.
Most recently, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis revealed that Russian hackers in 2016 were able to successfully breach voter databases in two of the state’s counties, though there was not evidence that they ultimately distorted election results, The Verge reports.
During a congressional hearing with Barr in May, both Democrats and Republicans on the Judiciary Committee expressed concerns about the potential for Russian interference to continue. As Vox’s Jen Kirby reported, however, “Barr’s answers suggested that conditions still exist that would allow this scenario to repeat in 2020 — with unclear repercussions for those involved.”
While the FBI and DHS have significantly expanded their efforts to combat interference, Senate bills would help take other steps to streamline communications between states and the federal government. The offering from Klobuchar and Lankford would make back-up paper ballots mandatory and formalize DHS roles on the issue, for example.
Since these bills have floundered, though, there’s no indication that these extra resources will be put in place anytime soon.
Trump doesn’t want to talk about election security, or anything vaguely tied to the Russia investigation
There’s one big reason Trump doesn’t want to talk about election security: It’s too closely tied to questions about the results of his own election. In his mind, acknowledging Russian meddling could mean casting doubt on his 2016 victory.
According to a report by the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, Ellen Nakashima, and Shane Harris, per current and former administration officials, “During discussions in the Oval Office, Trump has regularly conflated the threat of foreign interference with attacks on the legitimacy of his election.”
Because of this, Trump has tried to skirt the issue of election security altogether — and his top homeland security officials have reportedly been warned off trying to get him to address it.
A call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year underscored this dynamic: In that conversation, Trump said he and Putin talked about the Mueller report, but didn’t broach the issue of potential meddling in 2020 at all. During repeated instances in the past, Trump has also emphasized that he takes Putin’s denials about interference at face value.
The Post’s story noted that Trump’s refusal to tackle the issue head on served as a roadblock for developing a more comprehensive strategy even as federal agencies coordinated with all 50 states to provide election security infrastructure and support ahead of the 2020 election.
As his actions make all too clear, McConnell is just fine following Trump’s lead.
In a Hill story on Blunt’s recent remarks, a McConnell spokesperson directed the reporter to a recent speech the Leader made emphasizing that the case was closed on the Mueller investigation. As part of that speech, McConnell argued that lawmakers should move on from the Mueller review and blamed the Obama administration for not taking Russian interference efforts more seriously. “The previous administration sent the Kremlin the signal they could get away with almost anything,” he said.
As Vox’s Aaron Rupar noted, “it is McConnell, not Democrats, who seems to be having an abrupt awakening about Russia’s election interference” — but that doesn’t mean he’s willing to do much to address the issue. And on both Mueller and foreign interference, many other Republicans seem relatively content to fall in line.