During a contentious and highly partisan hearing with Attorney General William Barr yesterday, senators did manage to find one bipartisan point of agreement: Pushing for improved election and campaign security before 2020.
During the more than four-hour Judiciary Committee hearing, both Republicans and Democrats sought Barr’s support for legislation to require paper records for 2020 votes and efforts to harden election infrastructure and to combat digital misinformation. And they urged the Justice Department to help 2020 presidential campaigns ward off foreign interference.
“The special counsel’s report is the end of the road when it comes to the question of the Trump administration’s intent,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said. “But it is just the beginning of the conversation on how we counter Russia and other foreign adversaries in their attempts to undermine our Republic.”
It seemed to be the only point of political alignment at the hearing during which Democrats savaged Barr for allegedly misrepresenting findings in the report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and after which numerous Democratic senators called on the attorney general to resign.
What I just saw from the Attorney General is unacceptable. Barr must resign now.— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) May 1, 2019
But it’s far from clear that Congress will be able to pass election security legislation in time for the 2020 contest.
There's movement on the horizon: A Senate staffer tells me it's likely a new version of the bipartisan Secure Elections Act, the bill that came closest to passing last Congress, will be introduced before the next congressional recess that begins May 27. Another staffer told me a House version of the bill is ready to go soon after the Senate bill is introduced.
But the last version of the bill, which would require state and local election security officials to have paper backups of votes and to do post-election audits, was pulled near the end of the past Congress after the White House expressed concerns. The Trump administration said it went too far in infringing on states’ rights to control elections.
There’s no indication the White House has changed its position, and without White House support it will be difficult for any election security bill to pass the finish line.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who co-sponsored the Secure Elections Act along with Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), criticized the White House's work to quash the bill during Wednesday's hearing. She told Politico's Marianne Levine and Tim Starks that former White House Counsel Don McGahn and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel (Ky.) were primarily responsible for killing the bill and that she hoped it would have a better shot this year.
Klobuchar, who is a 2020 presidential candidate, urged Barr to throw his support behind the bill this Congress and help push for administration support.
“Otherwise, we are not going to have any clout to get backup paper ballots if something goes wrong in this election,” she said.
Barr responded that he isn’t familiar with the bill, but “will work with you on securing our elections."
Lawmakers and election security experts who support the Secure Elections Act say paper backups of ballots -- and conducting audits -- are vital to ensuring an accurate and trustworthy vote count. Many also want the bill to deliver additional money to help states buy updated and more secure election systems.
Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who co-sponsored the earlier bill, directed a rapid-fire series of questions at Barr during the opening of the hearing, asking whether he expected Russia and other nations to try to interfere in the 2020 election and whether he “would support an effort by Congress, working with the administration, to harden our electoral infrastructure?”
Barr answered yes to each question.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), meanwhile, urged the Justice Department to help 2020 candidates prevent their campaigns from being digitally compromised by Russia, China and other U.S. adversaries.
“We’re going to be under attack again in 2020 and it isn’t just going to be Russia, who’s pretty dang clunky at this stuff,” Sasse said. “It’s also … likely going to be China, who’s going to be much more sophisticated.”
Sasse warned that adversaries might not simply steal campaign information to leak it but also seek out compromising personal information to blackmail people who might become top administration officials.
“In a digital or cyber era, you don’t need a bar or a hooker anymore. You can surround people digitally,” he said.
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PINGED: President Trump's reelection campaign is running a new ad that misrepresents the Obama administration’s efforts to combat Russian hackers before the 2016 election, Politico’s Eric Geller reported.
“The two-minute ad includes a brief clip of former White House cyber coordinator Michael Daniel telling the Senate Intelligence Committee that the administration's cyber retaliation plans ‘were put on the back burner’ — confirming a Yahoo News story that said former national security adviser Susan Rice told Daniel: ‘Don't get ahead of us,’ " Eric reported.
But the ad implies Daniel was saying the administration was putting all response actions on the back burner when he was actually just describing retaliatory measures.
“During the hearing, Daniel told Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) that the National Security Council's cyber team simply ‘shifted our focus’ to prioritize ‘protecting the electoral infrastructure’ and gaining ‘visibility’ into Russia's actions,” rather than abandoning those efforts entirely, Eric reported.
“As for Rice's ‘stand down’ order, Daniel said, ‘the decision at that point was to neckdown the number of people that were involved in developing our ongoing response options’ — meaning that that process continued, just not with Daniel's team,” Eric reported.
PATCHED: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who spent seven years evading the law in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, will face a hearing today on whether he can be extradited to the United States for computer hacking crimes, my colleagues William Booth and Karla Adam reported.
Assange was sentenced to 50 weeks in a British prison Wednesday on bail-jumping charges. “He apologized to the court, but the judge said he had used his ‘privileged position’ to show disdain for British law, William and Karla reported.
“Legal experts anticipate the extradition fight could take years,” my colleagues reported.
The U.S. charges focus on a single incident in which Assange offered to help Chelsea Manning crack the password on a Defense Department computer, as I reported last month.
PWNED: The Czech Republic “should not initially rule out any Chinese or Russian companies from plans to build up new-generation 5G mobile networks,” Minister Karel Havlicek told Reuters’ Jason Hovet, in an interview -- another blow for U.S. efforts to reduce Huawei’s presence in European 5G networks.
U.S. officials fear the Chinese telecom giant could help Beijing spy on a vast array of government and industry information traveling across the new super-fast networks, but European nations appear less concerned.
The most concerning move for U.S. officials so far came earlier this month when news leaked that Britain would allow Huawei to build non-core portions of its 5G – a move strenuously opposed by the U.S. State Department.
British Prime Minister Theresa May fired Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson Wednesday for leaking the Huawei plans, my colleagues Karla Adam and William Booth reported. Williamson denied being the source of the leak.
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