Only moments after former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III sounded the alarm about Russia’s continuing efforts to undermine America’s democracy, the Republican Party jumped into action — on Russia’s side.
After hearing Mueller tell Congress that the Kremlin is still attacking the U.S. political system, Democratic senators reasonably expected that all their colleagues would rally to protect the country. How naive of them. Democrats then asked the Senate to quickly and unanimously approve a package of election security bills that had already been passed by the House. But a Republican senator, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, blocked them. A short while later, in the wake of Mueller’s assessment that “the Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious” challenges to American democracy that he has seen during his long career, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blocked yet another bill aimed at securing U.S. elections. That was the fourth such bill, so far.
Why are Republicans, the party of flag-huggers and fist-pumping “USA!” chants, throwing the gates open to America’s foes? The answer is as clear as it is disturbing: That’s what President Trump wants. And why does Trump want the country to lower its guard against a proven, ongoing assault by the Kremlin?
Because Trump fully expects that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interference will help him win in 2020, just as it did in 2016.
Trump has already shown he is prepared to accept that help. During a meeting with Putin last month, the president mocked concerns about Russia’s interference, joking about it in front of the Russian president. A few weeks before that, an interviewer asked the president how he would respond if a foreign country offered him damaging information on a political rival. The president’s response: “Oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”
Recall that Trump used this same kind of mainstream-media megaphone to solicit Russia’s assistance in 2016.
The legislation that Republicans are blocking would, among other things, require political campaigns to alert the FBI and federal election officials if they receive foreign offers of help. But it would do much more than that, taking decisive, muscular and urgent action to boost the country’s electoral defenses.
The bills would inject money and expertise, along with requirements for improved security and threat reporting.
The bill blocked by McConnell on Thursday, which has already passed the House, would provide hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen election security in the states, many of which are clamoring for assistance after seeing antiquated systems — including voter registration databases — come under attack. A coalition of state attorneys general has been pleading with Congress for assistance.
Democrats are exasperated with Republican stonewalling and foot-dragging on a problem that will take time to fix even after the funds become available. Time is running short. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Twitter that McConnell and the GOP have “buried commonsense election security bills in their legislative graveyard.”
It’s an extraordinary turn of events. The country’s political system was already attacked in 2016, as U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded, and there are signs that it is happening again. By now, Americans have stopped expecting Trump to address the threat. But watching Republicans commit malpractice on national security — in favor of at least one well-known and very determined foreign rival — makes one wonder what other preventable disasters are in store.
Republicans’ explanations for their refusal to act are thin gruel. They claim that they’ve already done enough, and that states should be allowed to do what they want — an old-fashioned “states rights” argument that fits right in with Hyde-Smith’s controversial embrace of Confederate heroes, her flippant humor about voting restrictions, and worse.
The president, of course, is not the only one who apparently believes Russian interference will help win elections. After all, Moscow’s hackers and online agitators have also focused their efforts on local political contests.
Justice Department indictments charge that Russian intelligence officers targeted, among others, the state of Georgia. That’s where then-state Attorney General Brian Kemp, a Republican, rejected assistance from the federal government to secure Georgia’s voting system ahead of the 2016 election. Two years later, Kemp became governor, winning an election that his Democratic challenger, Stacey Abrams, says was marked by irregularities. The victory was so narrow that even a little help could have tipped the balance.
The threat to U.S. democracy and the 2020 elections is not theoretical. Microsoft recently said that it has already detected 740 attempts by “nation-state actors” in the past year alone, targeting political figures, parties, campaigns, think tanks and others.
A nonpartisan study led by the Brennan Center for Justice found that state and local election officials urgently need more resources, noting that "election security is a national imperative for our democracy.”
Perhaps Republicans would rediscover their patriotism if they considered that the Russian government is not the only power with an interest in manipulating the United States’ vulnerable electoral infrastructure. China is already making its mark in cyberspace. So are Iran, North Korea and others.
Politicians have always faced a balancing act, deciding between what benefits the country and what benefits them. That’s where integrity and patriotism are supposed to come into play.
The most malignant feature of this era of hyperpartisanship is that Republicans are often closing their eyes to what is best for the country, in favor of what they think will help Trump. Their refusal to protect American democracy ranks among their most egregious misdeeds yet.