The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion After Mueller, a more public-spirited president would join Congress to defend the 2020 election

Russia's disinformation campaign is designed to polarize the U.S. public. And it's still going. (Video: Kate Woodsome, Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

IN THE political reactions to Attorney General William P. Barr’s summary of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings in the Justice Department’s Russia investigation, a key point — perhaps the most important one — has been nearly missing: The country was attacked during the 2016 presidential election, and the nation’s leaders must work to prevent another such attack in 2020.

Mr. Barr’s four-page summary states that Mr. Mueller’s report “outlines the Russian effort to influence the election and documents crimes committed by persons associated with the Russian government in connection with those efforts.” The Russian government conducted “disinformation and social media operations in the United States designed to sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election,” and the Kremlin conducted “computer hacking operations designed to gather and disseminate information to influence the election,” in particular by targeting Democrats and publicizing material through the website WikiLeaks.

Among the reasons that the Mueller investigation was not a witch hunt or, as Mr. Trump put it on Sunday, “an illegal takedown that failed,” is that the inquiry was the calmest and, we presume, fullest review of Russia’s hostile 2016 activities the nation has seen. It led to the charging of a variety of Russian entities. As important as it is to get more information from Mr. Mueller’s full report on the question of whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice, it is certainly no less crucial to learn what Mr. Mueller has to say about the Kremlin’s 2016 election meddling. Mr. Barr provided few clues in his four-page summary.

We know enough already to be certain that U.S. policy has yet to sufficiently adapt. National security experts have warned again and again that Russia has not been deterred from engaging in more mischief during next year’s presidential race. It would be better late than never to apply tougher sanctions that hurt key Kremlin officials and undermine the pillars of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s power as punishment for Russia’s interference — and as a warning that Mr. Putin would face a high price for future meddling. A president committed to protecting the United States would welcome such measures and strengthen bonds with NATO allies to present a united front against Russian aggression.

Congress, meanwhile, should drive more funding into upgrading and hardening the country’s election infrastructure. That means, yes, buying new voting machines that produce paper trails. But it also means setting higher standards for cybersecurity and post-election auditing, which require manpower and know-how in addition to better hardware.

The first duty of the nation’s leaders is to protect the country. That should be the top concern on their minds as we await release of the full Mueller report.

Read more:

The Post’s View: America is still unprepared for a Russian attack on our elections

Paul Waldman: Russia is going to attack our next election. The Trump administration may not even try to stop it.

Max Boot: No conspiracy or coordination. But lots of Trump-Russia ties and lies.

Greg Sargent: Trump won with illicit help. He abused his power. His AG is blocking a full reckoning.

Robby Mook: The sad truth about Russian election interference