Russian attacks on America require bipartisan response from Congress

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It is troubling enough that Democrats and Republicans in Washington are now so divided they can barely pass a budget, let alone find common ground on taxes, guns or immigration. But we are really in trouble as a country if a major national security threat — attacks by an adversary on our sovereignty, democratic institutions and social fabric — cannot bring the two major parties together around a common response. If special counsel Robert Mueller’s detailed indictment last week of 13 Russians for interference in the 2016 election and efforts to undermine public confidence in democracy is not enough to generate a strong bipartisan response, it is hard to know what will.

There are, of course, reasons to worry such a response will never come. President Trump seems so insecure about any suggestion that his election was not legitimate and appears so inexplicably subservient to Moscow that he will not even criticize Russia itself for meddling in our democracy. Because of this, all too many Republicans have been reluctant to take a strong stand on an issue that was once part of the party’s Reaganite canon, lest it appear to be an attack on Trump himself.

{mosads}In a historical reversal that can hardly be explained by any diminishment of the Russian threat to the United States, “confidence in Vladimir Putin” among Republicans doubled to 34 percent from 2015 to 2017, and only 36 percent of Republicans now consider Russia a major national security risk, compared with 61 percent of Democrats. Astonishingly, Trump’s response to the Mueller indictment was not to condemn the Russian attack or to put forward a plan to protect the country, but to falsely assert that the indictment cleared his campaign of any wrongdoing.

Expecting presidential leadership on this issue is, sadly, a lost cause. Even with the Mueller indictment, top U.S. intelligence chiefs reiterating their longstanding assessment of Russian interference, and Trump’s own national security adviser stating just last week that evidence of meddling is “incontrovertible,” it appears Trump is likely not going to act. And that means that Congress is going to have to.

As two former executive branch officials, we are hardly instinctive proponents of Congress taking the lead on foreign policy. But these are extraordinary times that require extraordinary measures. The first thing Congress needs to do is to conduct rigorous oversight to ensure enforcement of the Russia sanctions it authorized overwhelmingly last summer. The Confronting America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act expanded cyber sanctions, extended restrictions on Russian energy firms, and added to the list of sanctionable sectors of the Russian economy.

It also called on the administration to identify and potentially sanction Russian oligarchs close to Putin and to sanction companies or countries doing business with the Russian defense and intelligence sectors. Congress must increase pressure on Trump to impose these sanctions, as proposed in a resolution sponsored by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Republicans who want to prevent further Russian intervention should support it.

Another pending bill, the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines Act cosponsored by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris van Hollen (D-Md.), which has  companion legislation in the House, would go even further by imposing tough mandatory sanctions on Russia, or any other hostile power, if the director of national intelligence identifies cases of further electoral interference. Given CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s warning last week that he has “every expectation” Russia will try to interfere in the 2018 elections, this initiative also deserves strong, bipartisan support.

When it comes to actual voting systems, individual states are on the front lines, but Congress can play a role here as well. A bill cosponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) would enhance cooperation between the federal government and the states and provide grants to states to enhance cybersecurity and better protect outdated electronic voting machines. Such steps are essential to avoid potential uncertainty around upcoming elections, given the recent confirmation that the electoral systems of at least 21 states were attacked.

Congress can also use its power to update campaign finance laws to cover online activity, enhance transparency requirements and prevent political spending by foreign nationals. So far, social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google have mostly gotten away with professing innocence and denying any responsibility for the way their platforms have been used to manipulate voters and pit Americans against each other.

With Mueller’s confirmation that Russia manipulated this system, new legislation is needed to identify political ads paid for by foreign countries, root out fake accounts and disinformation, and review algorithms to prevent Russia-funded propaganda arms like RT and Sputnik from figuring prominently in news feeds. The Honest Ads Act, cosponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Klobuchar, would close the loophole in current law by requiring social media platforms to identify the sponsors of political advertising, as is already required on radio and television. Its passage would be another step in the right direction.

Finally, Congress should use its control over the defense budget to fully fund, and even go beyond, the administration’s request for an additional $4.8 billion to bolster the NATO presence in Eastern Europe, including by committing to the permanent deployment of additional U.S. forces in Poland and the Baltic nations. Bipartisan support for the European Reassurance Initiative, which is funded out of the Overseas Contingency Operations budget, would show Putin that even an ally in the White House cannot spare Russia from paying a price for attacking the United States.

All of these steps would be immeasurably easier if the commander-in-chief recognized the threat to our country and mobilized a national response, as has been the case whichever party was in power, from Pearl Harbor to the Cold War and 9/11. But if the president will not lead, it is incumbent on patriotic Democrats and Republicans in Congress to act without him.

Robert D. Blackwill served in senior national security positions in numerous Republican administrations, including most recently as White House deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.

Philip H. Gordon served in senior national security positions in two Democratic administrations, including as assistant secretary of State and special assistant to the president in the Obama administration.

They are both currently senior fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations and authors of a new special report called “Containing Russia.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Ben Cardin Congress Democrats Donald Trump Election James Lankford John McCain Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Mark Warner Martin Heinrich Mike Pompeo Republicans Robert Menendez Robert Mueller Russia sanctions Sherrod Brown Susan Collins White House

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