A tenuous Senate consensus on the dangers of Russian election hacking is being threatened by the GOP’s embrace of President Trump’s debunked argument that Ukraine also interfered in 2016.
Numerous Senate Republicans promoted that argument this week, bucking the conclusion of U.S. intelligence officials and ignoring warnings the claims are part of a Kremlin-backed effort to muddy the waters on Russia’s own interference.
"There's no question in my mind Ukraine did try to influence the election," Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), one of Trump’s most vocal supporters on the issue, said yesterday.
Senate Democrats also struck back. “The only people who are advancing the discredited theory about Ukraine and intervention are part of the continuing Russian disinformation campaign,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said.
The conflict is a sea change for the Senate, which has generally maintained a bipartisan consensus on the singular damage caused by Russia’s 2016 hacking and disinformation campaign and the danger of a repeat in 2020 — even as House GOP lawmakers have proved far more willing to follow Trump’s lead in questioning Russia’s role in the attacks and embrace conspiracy theories.
The shift could prove especially damaging as the legislative clock ticks down to 2020. The Senate is still considering election security measures, including providing more money for states to upgrade their voting systems and to impose new transparency requirements on political advertisements.
Things are also likely to get worse when the House impeachment inquiry moves to the Senate. The Democrat-led House Intelligence Committee forwarded its 300-page report yesterday charging Trump abused his office for political gain to colleagues on the Judiciary Committee which will write articles of impeachment. House Republicans on Monday, meanwhile, released a 123-page document insisting Trump’s handling of Ukraine was founded on “genuine and reasonable” suspicions.
Numerous Senate Republicans embraced claims of Ukrainian election interference when speaking with reporters around their weekly lunch Tuesday, as my colleagues Robert Costa and Karoun Demirjian report.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, described Ukrainian “cheerleading” for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton that was “not insignificant.”
Sen. Richard Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a member of GOP leadership, argued that Ukraine and Russia “both meddled.”
Even Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) argued: “There’s no difference in the way Russia put their feet, early on, on the scale — being for one candidate and everybody called it meddling — and how the Ukrainian officials did it.” He clarified to CNN, though, that “I don't think anybody interfered in the same way Russia did.”
Democrats were quick to shoot back.
Here’s Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.):
Let me be clear:— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) December 2, 2019
The charge that Ukraine had something to do with election meddling in 2016 is a lie spread by Vladimir Putin. pic.twitter.com/0Al3z0laqv
And Sen. Angus King (Maine), an independent who caucuses with Democrats:
On @NewDay this morning, I tried to make it clear: throughout the Senate Intel Committee’s work getting to the bottom of interference in the 2016 election, I have not seen any evidence that Ukraine was involved in the interference or influence campaign. It was Russia. pic.twitter.com/9E1tGLfSGy— Senator Angus King (@SenAngusKing) December 3, 2019
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) also asked David Hale, the No. 3 official at the State Department, during a Foreign Relations Committee hearing yesterday whether he had any evidence Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
“I do not,” Hale replied.
To be sure, GOP senators aren’t completely following the House lead.
Even the senators who are most bullish on Ukraine interference have stopped short of embracing the president’s most outlandish conspiracy theories — such as that Ukraine colluded with CrowdStrike to hide a hacked server.
Instead they generally cite a handful of statements by Ukrainian officials — including a 2016 op ed by then-Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Valeriy Chaly criticizing Trump for seeming to support Russian aggression against Ukraine — as evidence the nation’s leaders had a strong preference for Hillary Clinton.
Those arguments still draw a false equivalency between Ukrainian and Russian actions, however, and could play into the Kremlin’s hands.
Former White House adviser Fiona Hill dismissed the arguments as “a fictional narrative” spun by Russian intelligence when testifying in the House impeachment inquiry last month. She further warned: “These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes.”
Some Senate Republicans have also denounced the claims.
Here are statements from Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) via Politico’s Burgess Everett:
Sen. Cory Gardner on allegation of Ukraine election meddling: “I haven’t followed it. I don’t agree with it”— Burgess Everett (@burgessev) December 3, 2019
Has seen “no” evidence Ukraine meddled and just attended Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the issue
(Clarified tweet to make clear what Gardner was responding to)
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Republicans’ 2012 presidential nominee, told reporters he “saw no evidence from our intelligence community, nor from the representatives today for the Department of State, that there is any evidence of any kind that suggests that Ukraine interfered in our elections.”
Romney added later, “Leaders of the countries are pulling for one candidate or another, that’s to be expected, but there’s a big difference between pulling for someone, hoping someone wins in the American election and interfering in the way Russia did.”
One reason for the shift among Senate Republicans could be a calculation that being seen as soft on Russia won’t be as politically damaging as it once might have been for a party that defined itself by opposition to the Soviet Union, my colleagues report.
“The base supports the president, and every Republican knows that — and they don’t think that this issue will rise high on the list of issues that matter to voters when they go to the polls,” Republican consultant Michael Steel told Bob and Karoun. “Whether what some of them are saying on Ukraine is consciously intellectually dishonest or not, they think the election will turn on jobs and the economy, not on Russia.”
PINGED, PATCHED, PWNED
PINGED: The Department of Homeland Security's top cybersecurity official Chris Krebs will warn senators in a briefing today about the growing threat of ransomware targeting state and local governments, critical infrastructure and election systems.
The briefing is vital because ransomware attacks, which lock up computers until the victim pays a hefty fee, could cause massive damage — especially if they shut down hospital systems that patients need or lock up important voter records on Election Day, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a co-chair of the Senate Cybersecurity Caucus, told me. Warner requested the briefing alongside fellow co-chair Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).
“Ransomware attacks are capable of having the kind of impact on a society that a terrorist attack inflicts: fear, uncertainty, disruption of vital services, distrust in public institutions,” Warner said.
Despite that danger, the federal government has done far too little to protect against ransomware attacks and state and local governments need more funding to protect themselves, he said.
Krebs will also brief members on what they can do to address vulnerabilities in their states and how the federal government can better prepare against attacks on federal systems, Warner said.
PATCHED: With the departure of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) from the 2020 presidential race yesterday, the field lost one of its biggest election security advocates and a forceful foe of Russian hacking. Harris advocated for paper ballots and championed investments in election security at the state level as a part of her campaign's infrastructure plan.
She was also an original co-sponsor of the Election Security Act, which would require paper ballots and allocate more than $1 billion to upgrade state election systems, and was one of five early sponsors of the Secure Elections Act in 2018, which helped deliver $380 million to states ahead of the midterms.
Here she is this week on Twitter:
I'll say it again: Russia can't hack a piece of paper. That's why I cosponsored a bill to mandate hand-marked paper ballots in all federal elections.— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) December 3, 2019
There's simply no reason to delay passing this bill. @senatemajldr, what's it going to take? https://t.co/OWWKxnPCur
PWNED: Cyber criminals are still flocking to Web forums to share trade secrets and advertise stolen information, despite law enforcement crackdowns on the sites, a report from risk protection software company Digital Shadows shared exclusively with The Cybersecurity 202 finds.
Hackers prioritize the prestige and credibility offered by the long-running forums — even over encrypted messaging apps that would likely keep their communications better shielded from police, the report finds. The hacking forum users often express distrust of messaging services such as Telegram and WhatsApp in their posts, the report says. The anonymous forums also offer more historical information about users than messaging apps, making it easier for hackers to assess who to trust.
— Cybersecurity news from the public sector:
— Cybersecurity news from the private sector:
THE NEW WILD WEST
— Cybersecurity news from abroad:
- The Senate Commerce Committee will host a hearing titled “Examining Legislative Proposals to Protect Consumer Data Privacy,” at 10 a.m.
— Coming up:
- The House Energy and Commerce Committee will host an Federal Communications Commission oversight hearing on Thursday at 10 a.m.
- The Senate Commerce subcommittee on communications, technology, innovation and the Internet will convene a hearing titled “The Evolution of Next-Generation Technologies: Implementing MOBILE NOW” on Thursday at 10 a.m.