Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrFive things to watch in Russia probe review Trump, GOP shift focus from alleged surveillance abuse to Durham Russia probe Trump: Giuliani to deliver report on Ukraine trip to Congress, Barr MORE sent a four-page letter Sunday summarizing Special Counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts House impeachment hearings: The witch hunt continues Speier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump MORE’s report, concluding that Mueller was unable to establish that the Trump campaign engaged in criminal coordination with Russian efforts to interfere in our elections. For 22 months, prominent Trump critics focused on the Mueller investigation as a magic bullet, with sights set on whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE or his top campaign aides could be charged with a crime related to their contacts with Russians.

As a result, the underlying issue has become obscured. We should not lose sight of the reason the Trump-Russia story matters: a foreign adversary tried to subvert American democracy in 2016 by executing a massive influence campaign. For our country to move forward and address the host of vulnerabilities that the 2016 election exposed, we need to confront what happened in that election and discuss solutions. Strengthening transparency measures in election advertising would help improve public awareness of the messages being used to influence voters and popular opinion, and allow the press and public to respond to covert propaganda, thus making it less effective.


Russia established a confounding Catch-22. “It’s hard to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if it isn’t there,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in reaction to Barr’s letter, dismissing clear evidence of the multi-pronged Russian meddling effort. By focusing on Trump campaign “collusion” with Russia – a meaningless term in the legal sense – our attention diverted from setting up guardrails to safeguard our elections.

Facts revealed over the course of the investigation plainly contradict Moscow’s statement. Mueller charged 12 Russian intelligence officers with the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton presidential campaign. The investigation illuminated the extent to which Russian actors worked to confuse, divide and infiltrate our democracy.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein called Russia’s campaign ‘information warfare against the United States with the stated goal of spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.’ The Internet Research Agency (IRA), a company based in St. Petersburg, Russia, took extraordinary steps to pose as American political activists, engaging in online conversations with Americans. Between 2013-2018, the IRA’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter campaigns reached tens of millions of users in the U.S., according to a study by the University of Oxford. Countless individuals unwittingly spread sensationalist, conspiratorial misinformation produced by internet trolls thousands of miles away. But this study is just the tip of the iceberg, as it focuses on organic posts.

The Russian government also used paid advertising to purchase thousands of political ads on Facebook, which reached 126 million users. And this is the area where Congress has failed in its oversight role and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has failed in its enforcement role. The problem increases every election cycle. Dark money nonprofits have reported over $1 billion in political spending, but because their donors aren’t reported, we can’t know how much of that money came from foreign sources.

Now that the Mueller investigation is over, we should be asking whether our leaders in Washington will strengthen our election laws to prevent this from happening again, whether the next actors are Russian or other actors wishing our country’s democracy ill. Efforts to hold online election ads to the same standards of transparency as television ads have stalled. These efforts sought to close the very loopholes exploited by Russia in the 2016 election. But there is still hope.

If 87 percent of Americans polled by CNN agree that Mueller’s findings should be transparent, than we should find consensus on transparency measures that would shine a light on foreign money pouring into U.S. elections.

The House recently passed the “For the People Act,” which would strengthen the ban on foreign money. Passing this in the Senate – and having President Trump sign it into law – wouldn’t solve all the issues stemming from the 2016 election, but it would help give Americans confidence that their government is committed to increasing transparency in elections. Americans would assess a political ad differently if they knew Russia bought it.

Our country’s longstanding concerns about foreign interference are rooted in democratic self-governance and national sovereignty. Requiring disclaimers on online political ads helps journalists, watchdog groups, and law enforcement officials uncover foreign influence efforts. This will help our democracy, no matter who the candidates are. We have every reason to think Russia — or any other foreign adversary with an interest in disrupting our elections — will intervene in our elections in 2020 and beyond. It’s time we do something about it.

Trevor Potter (@TheTrevorPotter) is president of the Campaign Legal Center and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.