The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We’re defenseless against Russian sabotage in the midterm elections. And Trump’s not helping.

A voter at the Brooklyn Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles in November 2016. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump, unwilling to acknowledge the degree of Russian meddling in the 2016 election (and thereby tainting his “victory” as a result, in part, of a hostile foreign power’s interference), has brushed aside numerous admonitions from Congress, outside experts and even his own advisers to harden our defenses against future interference.

On Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats was the latest to testify to Russia’s threat to our democracy and our unpreparedness. The Post reports:

Appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said that Russia will continue using propaganda, false personas and social media to undermine the upcoming elections.
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts” to disrupt the 2016 presidential campaign “as a success,” and it “views the 2018 midterm elections” as another opportunity to conduct an attack, said Coats, testifying at the committee’s annual worldwide threats hearing.
His assessment was echoed by all five other intelligence agency heads present at the hearing, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who two weeks ago stated publicly he had “every expectation” that Russia will try to influence the coming elections.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, put the blame squarely on the president. “The president inconceivably continues to deny the threat posed by Russia. He didn’t increase sanctions on Russia when he had a chance to do so. He hasn’t even tweeted a single concern. This threat demands a whole-of-government response, and that needs to start with leadership at the top.”

Previously, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared: “I don’t know that I would say we are better prepared, because the Russians will adapt as well.” But since we have taken no serious steps to protect the electoral system, there is no need for Russia to even bother adapting. Last month on CBS’s Face the Nation, CIA Director Mike Pompeo promised that “we are working diligently to [protect against meddling]. So we’re going to work against the Russians or any others who threaten that very outcome.” You would think that if we have taken steps, local election officials would know about it, as would members of Congress.

Trump’s refusal to defend our elections — a blatant instance of disregarding his oath of office — comes in the face of multiple calls to secure our election machinery. Max Bergmann, the head the Moscow Project for the Center for American Progress, told me “our democracy was attacked in 2016, and the intelligence community just unanimously told us that the Russians plan to do it again in the 2018 elections. Yet the response from Trump and the Republican Congress is a collective shrug.” Bergmann added: “There have been no Cabinet meetings on Russian interference, no agency has been charged with leading a response, and no election security legislation. Worse, the administration amazingly turned lemonade into lemons with the new Russia sanctions legislation by not sanctioning anyone.” He concluded, “this is a deliberate policy of appeasement that is practically inviting future attacks on our democracy.”

Other reports have documented the extent of the challenge, and have made a raft of recommendations.

The Republic at Risk,” a joint project from Stand Up Ideas and Protect Democracy, warned that “guaranteeing the integrity of our elections, and ensuring that the American people have confidence in our electoral system, are paramount to repairing our political system.” The report recommended that the administration work to both prevent cyberattacks and provide “technical assistance for campaigns and parties, to harden security to prevent hacking.” Protect Democracy’s executive director Ian Bassin tells me, “Americans of all political backgrounds need to start asking why Trump believes Vladimir Putin but not Trump’s own hand-picked intelligence chief when it comes to what the Russians did and continue to do to wage war on our democracy. He adds, “As Director Coats makes clear with respect to the mid-terms, the time to act is now – we have no time to waste.”

Likewise, the progressive Brennan Center for Justice recently released a report, which said: “Election officials across the country say they are heading into the 2018 midterms with outdated voting machines and computer systems, and many of them do not have the resources to replace them. In response to a nationwide survey distributed by the Brennan Center for Justice at [New York University] Law, 229 officials in 33 states reported they need to replace their voting machines by 2020. Most of these officials do not currently have enough funds for those replacements. The Brennan Center says these old machines are more vulnerable to breakdown, malfunction, and hacking.” A number of bipartisan measures in Congress to provide grants for election security, to fund voting equipment with paper back-ups and designate voting systems remain dormant in Congress, lacking and a sense of urgency from either the executive branch or congressional leadership.

The Republicans’ culpability in failing to move swiftly to protect our democratic machinery is stunning. At some point, their 2018 opponents will start asking: Why aren’t Republicans protecting American democracy against Russian aggression? The answer is that Trump’s ego seems to take precedence over the country’s defense — and congressional Republicans are too timid to force action.