State Dept pick: Russian election interference is a ‘profound threat’

State Dept pick: Russian election interference is a ‘profound threat’
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President Trump’s choice for deputy secretary of State said Tuesday that Russian interference in democratic elections poses a “profound threat to our way of life.” 

John Sullivan, a lawyer and former official in the George W. Bush administration, called for a “robust” response to Moscow’s use of cyberattacks and disinformation to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Sullivan was responding to questioning from Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsHillicon Valley: Google to limit political ad targeting | Senators scrutinize self-driving car safety | Trump to 'look at' Apple tariff exemption | Progressive lawmakers call for surveillance reforms | House panel advances telecom bills Democrats raise privacy concerns over Amazon home security system Senators press Facebook over user location tracking policies MORE (D-Del.) during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday morning.

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Coons expressed concerns that a lack of further response to Russia’s election interference could incite Moscow to continue to pursue such efforts and “become more aggressive and more robustly engaged.” 

Coons referred to evidence that Russia has also tried to sway European elections, including last weekend's French presidential election and the upcoming election in Germany. 

“How do you think we could best deter Russia from future cyberattacks and efforts to subvert democracy?” Coons asked.

“It’s a persistent threat that we face, most recently from Russia in our election, and as you mentioned in the elections in Europe, in France and the Netherlands, and upcoming elections in Germany and Italy next year or maybe later this year,” Sullivan said. 

“I believe we have to be robust in our response to this intrusion into our democracy. When we talk about basic human rights, our republic is premised on a representative democracy,” Sullivan continued.

“Interference with our political processes is simply unacceptable. It’s a profound threat to our way of life, and we have to respond as robustly as possible with all of the means we have at our disposal,” he said.

An unclassified intelligence community report released in January concluded that the Russian government ordered an influence campaign aimed at the election with the goal of undermining democracy and damaging Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAs Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Harris rips Gabbard over Fox appearances during Obama years Steyer, Gabbard and Yang shut out of early minutes of Democratic debate MORE, with an aim to help Trump. 

Trump has approached the conclusions of the intelligence community with skepticism, saying in a recent interview that China could have been behind the hacking of Democratic officials’ emails.

While Trump said in January that he believes Russia was behind the Democratic National Committee hack, he has denied that Moscow sought to help him win against Clinton.

Trump nominated Sullivan to serve as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s deputy last month. Sullivan served in high-level positions at the Departments of Commerce, Justice and Defense during the Bush administration.

His confirmation hearing comes ahead of a meeting between Tillerson and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, the second face-to-face between the two officials in one month. 

Tillerson visited Moscow in April amid high tensions over the conflict in Syria, describing U.S.-Russia relations as reaching a low point during a joint press conference. Tillerson also characterized Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election as “fairly well-established.” 

The Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia and expelled a number of Russian diplomats from the United States in December after the intelligence community first disclosed Russia’s involvement in the DNC hack.

Lawmakers have grappled with how to respond to Russia's election interference, including potential legislation to boost sanctions on Moscow. 

Later during the Tuesday hearing, Sullivan said that cybersecurity would be a “very high priority” for him at the State Department.