Russian interference reports rock Capitol Hill
Reports this week that Russia is attempting to interfere in the 2020 race sent congressional Democrats reeling, with many lashing out at Republicans and blaming President Trump.
The New York Times reported Thursday that intelligence officials recently briefed the House Intelligence Committee about Russia interfering in the presidential race in an effort to get Trump reelected.
A day later, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he had been briefed on similar attempts to meddle in the elections, with The Washington Post reporting the Kremlin has sought to help his White House bid.
“All Members of Congress should condemn the President’s reported efforts to dismiss threats to the integrity of our democracy & to politicize our intel community,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tweeted after the Times story.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also weighed in, saying Republicans would “rather let [Russian President Vladimir] Putin win than stand up to President Trump.”
Criticisms from Democrats persisted even after reports of Russia attempting to help Sanders in the primary.
“If Donald Trump perceives that Sen. Sanders is his best general election opponent, and the Russians according to what Sanders just said are attempting to help Sanders, that means that the president and the Russians are aligned in who they want the president’s opponent to be upcoming in the fall,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Community and former presidential candidate, told MSNBC on Friday night.
Trump pushed back on the Times report Friday, claiming it was part of a “misinformation campaign” against him led by Democrats.
“Another misinformation campaign is being launched by Democrats in Congress saying that Russia prefers me to any of the Do Nothing Democrat candidates who still have been unable to, after two weeks, count their votes in Iowa,” Trump tweeted, referring to delayed results from the Iowa caucuses. “Hoax number 7!”
But former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who worked in the Trump administration, said during a speech Friday that Russia was indeed “trying to interfere in 2020,” and that the Justice Department and the FBI are constantly “on guard” against those efforts.
Sanders, meanwhile, directed his response to Putin.
“I don’t care, frankly, who Putin wants to be president,” Sanders said in a statement Friday. “My message to Putin is clear: stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do.”
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, particularly those who were not part of the House Intelligence Committee briefing last week, are expecting to get more information from intelligence officials about Moscow’s efforts during congressional briefings next month. Pelosi said House lawmakers will receive a briefing on election security March 10, the same day the Senate will be briefed.
A spokesperson for Pelosi did not immediately respond to The Hill’s inquiry about which intelligence officials would be involved in the briefing.
Congress received an all-lawmaker briefing on election security in July from top administration officials, including now-former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, former acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan and FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Election security has been seen as a touchy subject in the White House ever since Trump took office, and Coats was not the first administration official to receive pushback for bringing up the issue. Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen reportedly focused on it during her time in the Trump administration, but according to The New York Times was told not to discuss the matter around Trump.
Russian interference concerns have been repeatedly brought up since the 2016 elections. U.S. intelligence agencies, as well as the Senate Intelligence Committee and the report compiled by former special counsel Robert Mueller, concluded that Russian agents engaged in a sweeping interference campaign designed to benefit Trump in 2016.
Those efforts included disinformation campaigns on social media and the targeting of state election systems. Agents also hacked into the Democratic National Committee and the emails of top aides on the campaign of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton on Friday alleged that Trump wants Russia to interfere in the 2020 race.
“Putin’s Puppet is at it again, taking Russian help for himself,” Clinton tweeted. “He knows he can’t win without it. And we can’t let it happen.”
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), whose panel has held multiple hearings on election security over the past year, said in a statement that Trump was “in denial” about Russian interference in 2016, and that the president’s “ego cannot accept that Russia interfered on his behalf.”
“The President is not only refusing to defend against foreign interference, he’s inviting it,” Thompson added.
Wray, in testimony this month before the House Judiciary Committee, said Russian influence campaigns “never stopped” after 2016. On the hacking front, a top Kentucky election official testified this week that election systems in the state are “routinely” targeted by foreign actors, including those from Russia, Venezuela and North Korea.
Efforts to pass election security bills have stalled in the Senate. Democrats have repeatedly tried to force votes on the measures, but have been blocked by Republicans.
Still, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) backed a bipartisan effort in December to appropriate $425 million to states to bolster election security efforts. That legislation was later signed into law by Trump.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Hill in a statement Friday that he thinks top Republicans are “totally unconcerned” about potential Russian interference.
“At some point inaction in the face of overwhelming evidence of a threat is more than negligence, it’s complicity,” Wyden said.
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