“REALLY, WE get it” was the message from the White House briefing room Thursday, as a pantheon of senior national security officials insisted that Russia has meddled and continues to meddle in U.S. elections. “Our focus here today is simply to tell the American people:We acknowledge the threat, it is real, it is continuing, and we’re doing everything we can to have a legitimate election the American people can have trust in,” Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray warned of “malign influence operations” and “information warfare.” National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone promised that “we’re not going to accept meddling in the elections.”
But try as they might to reassure Americans that their government is responding to a clear threat from an avowed foreign rival, they could not control their boss. “In Helsinki, I had a great meeting with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” President Trump said that evening at a rally in Pennsylvania. “Now we’re being hindered by the Russian hoax.” Just as his senior national security staff attempted to calm Americans worried that their president is sidling up to an authoritarian who means the United States harm, Mr. Trump encouraged his supporters to doubt essential facts about Russia and its intentions.
Mr. Trump’s comments and those of his staff come just about a week after he held his first National Security Council meeting on election security. Think of that: It took more than a year and a half from his inauguration. The Post’s Ellen Nakashima reported that the meeting lasted less than an hour and produced no new orders.
Clearly Congress must take the lead in ensuring a robust response to the Russians’ 2016 meddling that deters future interference. Congress has already insisted on anti-Russian sanctions once since 2016, but many lawmakers complain the Trump administration has enforced them unevenly. Intelligence officials warn that the Russians have not been deterred. The recent news that Facebook found pages and fake accounts that appear to be associated with the Kremlin is an ominous sign. A more assertive response is needed.
A bipartisan group of senators proposed Thursday a package of new sanctions and reforms that should start that conversation. Led by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the group would target major oligarchs and other prominent members of Mr. Putin’s inner circle. It would squeeze investment in Russian oil and gas projects and in Russian sovereign debt. And it would shed more light on Russian financial dealings in the United States by requiring reports on large real estate transactions inside the country.
Their bill would also give the government new powers to crack down on cyber-wrongdoers. Federal prosecutors could close botnets that enable criminal activity, and they could charge anyone hacking into voting systems used in federal elections with a federal crime.
The president is not taking the Russia threat seriously enough. But lawmakers can show they really get it.