The Mueller investigation report into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and possible ties to the Trump campaign may be near complete. Its mandate is to determine what happened in the 2016 election and whether any Americans were criminally complicit. But regardless of whether special counsel Robert S. Mueller III finds criminal behavior, Russian misinformation and propaganda were at the very least spread by U.S. candidates and campaigns (and not only by the Trump camp). And that’s bad enough.
When U.S. politicians take false information that’s part of a foreign intelligence influence operation and promote it or otherwise use it to their advantage, that’s tantamount to aiding and abetting the attack, Biden told an audience in Munich this past weekend.
“Foreign election interference is not only a serious threat to our democratic institutions, I believe it’s a threat to our national security,” he said. “Authoritarian regimes, led by Russia, are actively seeking to interfere in our open, diverse and democratic societies to try to change outcomes of our democratic elections, and we can’t allow that to happen.”
Biden is co-chair of the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, a nongovernmental panel established last year to fill the gap on fighting election interference that governments have left. Along with former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen and others, the group brings together U.S. and European leaders to cooperate against the common threat.
The group studies Russian interference tactics, vulnerabilities in election infrastructure, cybersecurity solutions and how to deal with large Internet platforms such as Facebook. But the group’s latest initiative involves asking first European, then U.S. candidates and parties to sign a pledge not to “aid and abet” foreign election interference.
The pledge asks candidates to refrain from wittingly or unwittingly helping foreign actors undermine Western democracy in five ways. Candidates should not use or spread materials that were falsified or stolen for disinformation or propaganda purposes. They should avoid spreading doctored audio or video of other candidates, including “deepfake” videos. They should avoid using bot networks to attack opponents via third parties. They should maintain high cybersecurity for their campaigns. And they should commit to transparency in campaign financing.
Europe will have about 20 elections before the United States’ next presidential election, and the Russian government is already actively trying to disrupt them. While there are real problems in the U.S.-Europe relationship right now, this is one area where our interests and our security are perfectly aligned.
The pledge is not specifically directed at President Trump, but it’s impossible not to notice that Trump and his campaign were major violators of the rules contained in this pledge the last time around. Trump promoted WikiLeaks’ stolen material egregiously. The White House has shared doctored videos on social media. Trump campaign and family members retweeted propaganda from a Russian troll farm. On cybersecurity and financial transparency, the Trump campaign would get failing grades.
“I’m looking forward to the president signing the pledge in the 2020 election,” Biden said. “Were I a candidate, I would sign the pledge.”
The call for candidates and political parties not to “aid and abet” foreign election interference is not about accusing the Trump campaign of criminality, although there are some instances in which aiding and abetting a crime could constitute a criminal offense. The point is to call on all Americans and Europeans to realize that foreign interference is an attack on all of democratic society and requires increased resilience here at home.
“Trust is the essential ingredient in democracy. If that trust is undermined, we have a big problem,” Rasmussen said. “By adding their name to this pledge, candidates and parties can make clear that their first priority is to defend democracy itself.”
Authoritarian regimes are waging a broad campaign on Western democracy that depends on co-opting citizens in free societies and using their own systems against them. Rejecting that is the duty of all citizens, including the media, which also bears responsibility for spreading Russian stolen materials and propaganda last time around.
“We all have to take our responsibility,” said Marietje Schaake, a Dutch politician and member of the European Parliament. “People deserve to have their democratic rights, which are human rights, respected. And they should not be tricked or misled in the information that is being circulated or in the process of voting.”
No matter what the Mueller report says — and no matter who runs in 2020 — all candidates and political parties should be able to promise that, in the future, U.S. elections will be decided by Americans only, and that none of us will actively help our enemies divide us.