National Security

Election security to take back seat at Mueller hearing

This week’s much-anticipated hearing with former special counsel Robert Mueller promises to be full of high political drama. But election security — a key focus of the Mueller report — isn’t likely to garner much attention from lawmakers.

Mueller is scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees in back-to-back hearings Wednesday to discuss the findings of his 448-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

{mosads}The first volume of the report was devoted to Russian efforts to interfere in the elections through social media and hacking operations, with Mueller later emphasizing in rare public remarks that election security is an issue that “deserves the attention of every American.”

“I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments, that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our elections,” Mueller said in a public statement to the press in May.

His lengthy report detailed how Russian actors hacked into the computer system of the Democratic National Committee, engineered a social media disinformation campaign that favored President Trump and conducted “computer intrusion operations” against those working on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

In the wake of the report’s release, election security debates ramped up on Capitol Hill, with Republicans and Democrats strongly disagreeing on what steps, if any, Congress should take ahead of the 2020 elections.

The Democratic-led House has passed several election security bills, while the GOP-controlled Senate has mostly avoided voting on them and others, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) citing concerns about federalizing elections and claiming agencies already doing enough to address the problem.

{mossecondads}Both chambers were briefed by senior administration officials this month on efforts to secure elections heading into 2020.

Still, members of the House Intelligence Committee, which published its own report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections, are not expected to focus many of their questions on the topic when Mueller testifies.

A committee spokesperson declined to comment on whether Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) planned to question Mueller on election security but noted that Schiff plans to hold an “open election security hearing with relevant public officials following the August recess.”

The House is set to return from its annual monthlong recess on Sept. 9.

A spokesperson for ranking member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) did not respond to a request for comment, but Nunes last month described the Mueller report as a “hit piece” designed to bolster Democrats’ calls for impeachment.

Some members of the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees expressed a keen interest in pursuing the issue of election security but indicated it will not be a priority during the hearing.

Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a member of both committees, told The Hill recently that she “really wished we had time” to discuss election security, citing “loose ends.” But she added that “we’re going to be focused specifically on his investigation and his report, more about meetings the Trump campaign or the administration had with Russian officials, the president obstructing justice, and the conclusions about not exonerating the president.”

Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), chairman of the House Homeland Security cybersecurity subcommittee and a member of the Judiciary Committee, told The Hill that he did not plan to question Mueller on the topic as he thought “that part of the report is sufficiently detailed.”

Another Intelligence Committee Democrat, Rep. Mike Quigley (Ill.), said a major roadblock to bringing up election security is the five-minute time constraint each member has to ask questions and the multitude of other issues to address.

Quigley, who has been one of the more active House members on election security, added that while it was too early to say what his questions would be, he hoped Mueller would address the portion of the report on Russian hacking and social media interference efforts in 2016.

“The first time, and the only time that Mueller spoke to the American public, eight minutes, people forget that half of it, he was talking about election security,” Quigley told The Hill. “I think the most important thing he can do is to reiterate and expound upon that, what the threat was, why the threat is still there, and why we need a bipartisan response.”

Two Intelligence Committee members — Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) and Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) — separately told The Hill that while their questions aren’t decided, they hoped Mueller would be able to offer advice on what Congress should do to secure elections.

Castro added that he hoped Mueller would address “whether he believes, based on his investigation, that the United States election system is protected as well as it should be and whether he has seen sufficient efforts between when he started his investigation and now to better secure our U.S. election system.”

Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), a Judiciary Committee member, said she wished the panel “would focus more on the actual interference in our elections by the Russians instead of going after the Trump administration constantly.”

While committee members may have been noncommittal about whether they would ask election security questions, at least one former top official was not.

Former FBI Director James Comey on Friday detailed the questions he would ask Mueller in an article for Lawfare. Among them was whether Mueller discovered if there were contacts between Russian officials and Trump campaign members and if so, whether the Trump campaign reported those contacts to the FBI.

Comey was involved in investigating Russian interference efforts in the 2016 election before being fired by Trump in May 2017.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a co-sponsor of various election security measures, said that even though he won’t have the opportunity to question Mueller, he hopes the former special counsel will use the national spotlight to issue a stark warning to the American public.

“He needs to reinforce the message that he made at his press conference, that the Russians attacked our democracy in 2018. They’ll be back,” Warner said.

Tags Adam Schiff Brad Wenstrup Cedric Richmond Devin Nunes Donald Trump election interference Election Security Hillary Clinton James Comey Joaquin Castro Mark Warner Mike Quigley Mitch McConnell Robert Mueller Val Demings
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