Everyone remembers the moment. It was the close of the July 2018 Helsinki summit. An adamant President Trump defended Vladimir Putin against allegations of what was politely referred to as Russian “meddling” in the 2016 presidential election. Trump told stunned viewers at the news conference that Putin had assured him that Russia had not interfered. Trump said that while he had “great confidence” in the U.S. intelligence community, which made the allegations, Putin was “extremely strong and powerful in his denial.” Trump concluded by saying, “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia.
Now special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has finished his investigation, and one thing, at least, is clear: Russia did indeed interfere, and Trump’s foot-dragging on the subject for the past two years has meant that he has taken no steps to protect the security and integrity of future elections. It’s time.
The president seemed to have enormous difficulty acknowledging what Americans had come to accept, and what the multiple agencies that make up the intelligence community all agreed on: Russia, at Putin’s direction, tried to influence the U.S. election. Trump seemed haunted by the specter that his election was somehow illegitimate, that he had not won fair and square. As far back as the first presidential debate, in September 2016, he suggested that the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails could have been the work of “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds” rather than the Russians. At times, when pushed, he would appear to accept the intelligence about Russian election interference but he always found a way to retreat later.
While there is some debate about whether Mueller’s as-yet-unreleased report vindicates Trump, in no way does it vindicate Putin. Even Trump’s handpicked attorney general, William P. Barr, has acknowledged what Russia did. “The Report outlines the efforts of Russia to influence the election and documents crimes by persons associated with the Russian government in connection with those crimes,” Barr wrote in his summary of the report, before concluding that the special counsel’s investigation “did not establish” any involvement by Americans in Russia’s efforts. Barr cited the special counsel’s indictments alleging that Russia tried to dupe American citizens with its troll-farm operations and influence the outcome of the election with strategic dumps of emails stolen from leading Democrats.
In the face of this attack on American democracy, and the truth known by old Russia hands — that the Russians’ goal is to disrupt us and that they’d be delighted to reduce the confidence Americans have in the outcome of the 2020 election — what should the president do? He should squarely concede that Russia tried to manipulate the 2016 election and will continue to make similar efforts in the future, and he should immediately initiate an aggressive government effort to safeguard the security of the next vote. Because of the shadow Russia cast on the 2016 election, it is critical that everything possible be done to guarantee both the integrity of the election machinery and the public’s confidence in it.
State officials typically administer voter registration rolls. Elections themselves are administered at the local level. When we elect federal officials, including the president, it’s the local officials in counties, towns and parishes who run the elections. They are also responsible for the machines we use to vote, the systems that count votes and keeping everything up to date. In 2002, the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, distributed almost $4 billion to the 50 states that they, in turn, distributed to their counties for buying and upgrading voting equipment. Since then, counties have been left to their own devices. The voting systems bought with HAVA money are largely at (or past) their useful life span. Limited funds that were made available in late 2018 were insufficient for current needs and did not provide for long-term ones. The critical need to replace paperless voting machines with ones that keep a paper trail was not addressed. Although there is no confirmation that Russia altered vote tallies, it did scan and probe voter registration databases in 21 states in 2016, and a “small number” of them were actually penetrated, according to a February 2018 report from the head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security. Given these vulnerabilities and the certain knowledge that Russia, and most likely others, are making efforts to further interfere in our elections, it is unconscionable that the White House has not led an effort to protect them.
The first step the president should take to strengthen the elections is to secure passage of a new HAVA and to insure future election integrity with funding that will allow local governments to keep up with technological developments and incentivize a move to paper ballots, replacing paperless machines, which are vulnerable to cyberattacks. In 2017, hackers at a Las Vegas convention broke into a well-known company’s voting machines in 20 minutes. Imagine the resources a foreign country can bring to bear.
It’s time for the president to commit federal government resources to protecting the 2020 elections. Multiple, complicated issues implicated by Mueller’s troll-farm and hacking indictments, along with the problem of outdated and underfunded equipment, need to be confronted, and problems must be solved by people who recognize that the sanctity of American institutions is fundamental to our democracy and above partisan practices. Trump should establish a proper election integrity commission, made up of bipartisan experts on running elections, employing the latest technology and developing best practices for guaranteeing that each American’s vote is properly tallied. Such a commission should also include experts who understand social media and hacking. It should be given the resources it needs to quickly get to work, and its work must be open to public scrutiny.
In the wake of Barr’s letter summarizing the Mueller report, the pro-Kremlin Russian television network RT called the Pulitzer Prize that The Washington Post and the New York Times won in 2018 for reporting on Russian election interference a “Pulitzer for fake news.” Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, tweeted that this was “#fakenews awards” — even though the attorney general that Trump himself put in place accepts that Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election. Americans see this Russian threat. There is no excuse for ignoring it. The president, absolved by Barr of participation with Russia in its attack, can’t continue to deny or play it down. His job is to protect us from enemies, foreign and domestic. Foreign attacks on our elections must be a top priority.