At long last, congressional Republicans appear to have decided that American elections are worth protecting from foreign interference.
The turn-around has come four years after Russia first launched interference efforts — and with little time to prepare for the 2020 election.
The about-face stems largely from Attorney General William Barr’s Sunday letter about special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. In a four-page summary of the still-secret report, Barr wrote that Russia engaged in a two-pronged approach to meddle in the 2016 presidential election: It conducted disinformation and social media campaigns “designed to sow discord” and interfere with the election, and it hacked into and disseminated emails from the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“Russia’s ongoing efforts to interfere with our democracy are dangerous and disturbing,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said in a statement after Barr released his letter. “Many Republicans have long believed that Russia poses a significant threat to American interests.”
But a glance at the Republican response to past reports about Russian election interference belies McConnell’s claims. Time and again, Republicans have slow-walked or outright stalled efforts at beefing up American election security. And while they’ve made noise about concerns about foreign election interference — out of China, mainly — legislation that could help prevent a reprise of 2016 has crumbled in the face of Republican intransigence and indifference.
McConnell set the tone for Republicans’ response before the election in 2016, when he repeatedly blocked the Obama administration’s efforts to highlight Russia’s ongoing interference efforts.
When Obama sought to issue a bipartisan statement condemning Russian meddling, McConnell refused, according to then-Vice President Joe Biden. McConnell “wanted no part of having a bipartisan commitment saying, essentially, ‘Russia’s doing this. Stop,'” Biden said. (McConnell has disputed this account.)
When the White House ultimately made public threats to foreign interference in September 2016, McConnell worked to deaden the language. A September 2016 letter to state leaders warning of election threats, for instance, was significantly “watered down” by McConnell, according to Obama’s White House chief of staff Denis McDonough. The final letter didn’t even mention Russia.
“It took over three weeks to get that statement worked out,” McDonough said. “It was dramatically watered down.”
And in a hint of the GOP intransigence to come, state-level Republican legislators vocally pushed back against the Obama administration’s attempts to improve election infrastructure. When Jeh Johnson, then secretary of homeland security, suggested increasing federal coordination to protect the election, Republicans blanched. As the Washington Post recounted, Brian Kemp, then Georgia’s secretary of state and now its governor, “denounce[d] Johnson’s proposal as an assault on state rights.” The calls to improve election coordination went nowhere.
To be sure, the Obama administration could have pushed out more information about Russian interference even without McConnell’s sign-off. Newsweek reported that the Obama administration even blocked then-FBI Director James Comey from writing about it. But with a Republican candidate — Donald Trump — constantly claiming the election was “rigged,” and with many Democrats assuming that Clinton would win the presidency, the White House decided to do less than it could have to protect the election.
As Trump assumed the presidency, revelations about Russian interference efforts began to spill out. And it wasn’t long before the contours of the Kremlin’s campaign — how Russian hackers swiped Democratic emails; how Russian trolls posed on social media as Texas secessionists and black activists and Trump supporters — became clear.
But even then, Republicans slow-walked efforts to beef up election security. Even as Facebook revealed how Russian hackers reached millions of users, even as the special counsel’s office detailed how Russian hackers infiltrated Democratic servers and pilfered thousands of emails, Republicans did not take action.
For the first year of Trump’s presidency, when they controlled both chambers of Congress, Republicans didn’t hold a single hearing on improving election security (although there were hearings that discussed the ongoing investigation into Russian election interference). And through much of 2018, as the midterm elections approached, Republicans made only lukewarm efforts at improving election security. One proposed bill, the Secure Elections Act, gained some bipartisan support — but many Republicans eventually backed out after the White House said that the bill would give Washington too much control over local elections.
One of the most prominent efforts would have increased spending on election security. Pushed by Democrats, the proposed legislation would have added hundreds of millions of dollars to state-level election security procedures.
In both the House and Senate, GOP officials shot down the proposal. Some claimed that states already had enough funding. Others, like Rep. Jim Jordan, (R-OH), said that the only thing for “safe and secure elections” was “voter ID.” (Voter ID legislation would have done nothing to prevent Russian interference efforts.) The votes striking down the bills fell largely along party lines.
“Partisanship — that’s what surprised me,” David Hickton, a former U.S. attorney and founding director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security, told ThinkProgress. Hickton also headed a blue-ribbon commission on election security and helped oversee a wide-ranging report recently on election security recommendations, which described the “clear and present danger” that non-paper ballots pose and recommended increased federal assistance for election security.
“I am baffled as to why particularly the Republicans have refused to acknowledge that this threat exists. And I thought that if there was one thing we could all agree upon, it’s that in the world’s leading democracy, we need to protect our elections,” he added.
One of those who voted against the bill, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), summed up Republicans’ positions on protecting elections from foreign interference this way: “I’ve been pretty upfront that the election interference — as serious as that was, and unacceptable — is not the greatest threat to our democracy. We’ve blown it way out of proportion.”
Johnson’s comment came just after a trip abroad — to, of all places, Moscow.
Over the past few months, with Democrats now in control of the House, the tide may have finally begun to turn.
Democrats have introduced legislation that would beef up election security. And senators like Ron Wyden (D-OR) have continued to push for basic election security prerequisites, such as paper ballots. Wyden’s 2018 proposal also would require rigorous audits for federal elections.
“Why would we give foreign adversaries the opportunity to hack into our voting systems when we have better, more secure alternatives?” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), a co-sponsor of the bill. “This bill is a critical step toward protecting one of our nation’s most precious assets: the integrity of our democracy.”
While that 2018 bill faltered in the face of Republican disinterest, a spokesperson for Wyden told ThinkProgress that the senator would be re-introducing the bill in a few weeks.
Even before Mueller completed his report, some Republicans had begun to take election interference seriously. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), who is on the House Homeland Security Committee, has said that he’s open to requiring states to improve election security against hackers.
But other Republicans appear to be following the Trump administration’s lead.
For instance, even after Trump created the Cyber Security and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) in 2018 — an agency dedicated to protecting America from cybersecurity threats and foreign interference — the White House has already taken moves to gut its ability to oversee election security. As the Daily Beast found, CISA task forces dedicated to fighting foreign election interference “are being dramatically downsized,” just months after they came into being. One of the two CISA task forces has reportedly been cut 50 percent in only a few months, with “concerns it will completely wither away.”
CISA also appears, at least publicly, to be refocusing more on public awareness, rather than election security per se.
On election security, I rolled out our new call to action: #Protect2020. Every American can play a part doing 3 simple things in the lead up to the elections in 2020. #PreachPlanParticipate pic.twitter.com/VR5bfQWbJq
— Chris Krebs (@CISAKrebs) March 10, 2019
Perhaps McConnell’s statement over the weekend may signify a change in the Republican approach. But it comes almost three years after he first learned of Russian interference efforts — and just as the 2020 election campaign is getting underway. Years of possible preparation have already passed the U.S. by, and another election looms.
“[McConnell’s statement] is hopeful,” Hickton said. “I thought it was a change in posture that was healthy. But… what we really need here is a partnership between the states, which control the elections, the local municipalities and counties which administer them, and the federal government, which represents us against national security threats. And we really need to improve our game to protect American citizens and the institution of our elections — and we really need to stop fighting about something that we should all have a common interest in.”