Officials say foreign governments should not investigate presidential political opponents

Federal officials from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) said Tuesday that they did not support the idea of a foreign government investigating political opponents of President TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerBiden to raise refugee cap to 125,000 in October Ocasio-Cortez, Bush push to add expanded unemployment in .5T spending plan Angelina Jolie spotted in Capitol meeting with senators MORE (D-N.Y.) questioned witnesses at a committee hearing on election security about whether they thought it was “appropriate for the president of the United States to ask a foreign government to investigate his political opponent in the 2020 elections.”

Witnesses including Matthew Masterson, DHS’s senior cybersecurity advisor; Nikki Floris, the deputy assistant director for counterterrorism at the FBI; and EAC Vice Chairman Ben Hovland all answered “no.”

Adam Hickey, the deputy assistant attorney general within the Justice Department’s National Security Division, was the only witness to not answer "no," instead saying he did not “comment on the president’s activities” but that the Justice Department is “committed to confronting violations in the law wherever we find them.”

Nadler’s question referred to the subject of a House impeachment inquiry into Trump, which was launched by House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs Democrats steamroll toward showdown on House floor Panic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda MORE (D-Calif.) last month after Trump allegedly pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE’s son Hunter Biden during a late-July phone call. 

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Questions about the impeachment inquiry at times overshadowed the overall hearing on election security. This is the second time the House Judiciary Committee has formally held a hearing on the issue this year.

Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) asked the witnesses a similar question to Nadler's, questioning them on whether “it is appropriate for the president to ask a foreign government to investigate previous election interference” in order to find if there was “something unlawful happening” in other countries.

Masterson said he believed it’s “appropriate to understand any attempts at interference in our elections so that we can continue to build resilience in the process,” while Hovland said he was in favor of “election officials having the information they need to prepare for future elections.” 

The witnesses also discussed the state of election security ahead of 2020, saying that while federal agencies are much better prepared to face interference threats than in 2016, there is more that can be done and more teamwork between agencies is needed to confront foreign threats.

“Combating malign foreign influence operations requires a ‘whole of society’ approach that relies on coordinated actions by Federal, State, and local government agencies; support from the private sector; and the active engagement of an informed public,” Hickey said.

Hovland praised the efforts of state and local election officials to increase election security and resiliency ahead of 2020 but pleaded with the committee to provide consistent federal funding to bolster election security efforts going forward.

“The threat of foreign adversaries remains real and, ultimately, our state and local election officials do not have the resources to thwart a truly determined and sophisticated nation-state actor,” Hovland said.

The EAC was appropriated $380 million by Congress in 2018 to give to states to increase election security, with both the House and Senate now considering giving between $250 million and $600 million to states for the same purpose during the upcoming fiscal year.

DHS’s Masterson, who previously served as an EAC commissioner, said he was “confident” these combined funds would “allow us to maintain that level of support to ensure election officials have what they need as they head into election day.”

The FBI’s Floris added that she was “confident that we are throwing every tool we have against the threat to our election security.” 

Election security has continuously been in the spotlight over the past several months after the release of former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE's report on Russian election interference efforts in 2016 and two reports from the Senate Intelligence Committee on the same issue.

Mueller found that Russian operatives launched a sweeping campaign to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections through hacking and social media disinformation efforts, with the intention of swaying the election results in favor of rump.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s most recent report on social media disinformation concluded that these efforts were directed by the Kremlin.