The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Will Republicans ever get serious about Russian sabotage of the next election?

(Evan Vucci/Associated Press)
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In testimony this morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Bill Priestap, the assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, issued a dire warning. The United States, Priestap told lawmakers, “is under relentless assault by hostile state actors and their proxies” and “our economy, our national security and our way of life are being actively threatened by state actors and their proxies today and every day.”

Today’s hearing was about enforcing the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a federal statute that requires agents of foreign actors to disclose, via public filings, their relationship with the foreign actor and the financial relationship between them. It’s like a lobbying disclosure form for people who are advocating on behalf of foreign individuals or entities. Although Priestap has previously warned the Senate Intelligence Committee about Russia’s capabilities for interfering in future elections, today’s testimony was about far more extensive efforts by foreign actors to undermine every facet of public life — including upcoming elections.

The danger isn’t limited to spies’ cloak-and-dagger activities. Foreign powers, Priestap said, “use people from across their governments and from all walks of life in pursuit of their desire to gain strategic advantage over the United States in whatever ways they can,” he said. Too few people, he went on, understand “the scope and scale of the counterintelligence threat,” which is “growing, both in volume and complexity.”

Despite the urgency of Priestap’s admonition about foreign adversaries, Republican members of the Judiciary Committee had another enemy they wanted to discuss: Hillary Clinton.

In their statements and questioning of Priestap and two other witnesses, Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, and Adam Hickey, the deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s National Security Division, Republicans showed just how much they want to continue litigating whether Clinton posed a more dangerous national security risk than Donald Trump. Rather than address the ongoing threat to our democracy and how to combat it, Republicans dwelled on whether Democrats and the dreaded media are engaging in overblown charges related to the investigations of possible collusion by the Trump campaign with Russian actors.

Utah Republican Orrin G. Hatch used his time to deliver a soliloquy on this topic. Hatch first insisted that there “are few things I take more seriously than the allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 election.” But he then went on to charge that “many of these allegations have been truly outrageous” and “politically motivated.”

“If we are going to get to the bottom of this,” Hatch said, “we need to investigate the whole story. That means looking at more than just foreign influence over the Trump campaign. It includes looking at serious allegations of foreign influence over the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee as well.”

This effort to claim “well, both sides did it so we must investigate both” is not based in fact or evidence. It is a ludicrous deflection from the seriousness of the threat facing the country, including clear evidence Russia intends to sabotage our next election — and the fact that the president, and the party as a whole, has shown little interest in addressing it.

As the January 2017 declassified assessment of the CIA, FBI and NSA concluded, “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump” and “aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible.” In that report, the agencies concluded that “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.” Similarly, former FBI director James Comey has described Russia as “the greatest threat of any nation on Earth” to our democratic process — right now, and in the future.

Yet Hatch didn’t have much to say about this threat, maintaining that there are still questions over whether foreign actors wanted to help Clinton, not Trump. “We must ensure that these investigations serve as an opportunity to protect our institutions, not merely as an excuse to attack our political opponents,” he said. Yet he was using the very occasion to realize the partisan goal of deflecting attention from the Republican president. Indeed, in so doing, Hatch undermined his own claim to be taking the investigations seriously.

With these deflections, these GOP lawmakers subverted the entire purpose of the hearing. The hearing was intended to shed light on how FARA disclosures can help the government combat the threat going forward. For example, had former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort timely filed his FARA disclosure that he was acting on behalf of a pro-Russia Ukrainian political party, rather than retroactively filing it just last month, the counterintelligence community and the public might have known more about that relationship. That was not a topic any of the Republican lawmakers pursued with the witnesses.

Meanwhile, two Republicans seemed intent on making Clinton the focus of the FARA issue. Both Committee chair Charles Grassley of Iowa and John Kennedy of Louisiana dredged up communications from Clinton friend Sidney Blumenthal to Clinton while she was Secretary of State which, they suggested, would have required a FARA disclosure on Blumenthal’s part.

The Blumenthal distraction, though, is a tiny drop in the larger bucket of the crucial need for FARA disclosures. When foreign agents evade FARA’s disclosure requirements, Priestap told lawmakers, “we are more susceptible to being unduly influenced” by foreign actors pursuing hostile governments’ goals on “economic, technological, military, diplomatic, and intelligence fronts.” This is not about Clinton, or even just about Trump. This is about a critical transparency mechanism whose enforcement is one key to combating foreign interference in our democracy.

As Priestap acknowledged during questioning, there is no doubt that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. The issue at hand was how to prevent such nefarious intrusions in the future. It’s incumbent upon Congress, in its oversight role, to ensure that FARA is enforced, as just one tool in the battle against foreign interference. At this hearing, however, the Republican Party seemed more intent on continuing its quest to defeat Hillary Clinton, again and again.