Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III punctuated the opening statement he offered the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday with a warning he’s presented before.
“The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious,” he said. “As I said on May 29, this deserves the attention of every American.”
There are few documents that detail Russia’s past interference with our election as thoroughly as the report compiled by Mueller and his team following their investigation that began in 2017. But Mueller’s comment to the committee marks only the most recent iteration of a recurring theme from officials working for the administration of President Trump: Our elections remain at risk from Russia and others.
The first public warning about Russia’s efforts to interfere in U.S. elections came at an unfortunate moment. On the afternoon of Oct. 7, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement warning that Russian actors were trying to disrupt the 2016 contest.
“The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts,” the statement read, referring to material stolen by a group of Russians indicted in Mueller’s probe. “These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process.”
That warning might have had more of an effect had the “Access Hollywood”-tape story not been published shortly afterward — and had WikiLeaks not, later that day, started dumping material stolen from a senior staffer for Trump’s opponent.
After Trump won, President Barack Obama somewhat defensively expressed his hope that Trump would address the problem of Russian interference.
“My hope is that the president-elect is going to similarly be concerned with making sure that we don’t have potential foreign influence in our election process,” Obama said. “I don’t think any American wants that. And that shouldn’t be a source of an argument.” A few days earlier, a bipartisan group of senators had released a statement calling for a focus on election security.
Two weeks before Trump was inaugurated, the intelligence community released a report addressing how and where Russia intervened during 2016. Until Mueller’s indictments against the Russian interference teams were released, it was the most robust document detailing Russia’s efforts.
After Trump became president, members of his administration raised the subject numerous times. Those warnings began slowly but gained importance as the 2018 midterms loomed. (All titles below are as of the time of the warning.)
August 2017 — CIA head Mike Pompeo on Russia: “They have been at this a hell of a long time. And I don’t think they have any intention of backing off.”
September 2017 — Ambassador-designate Jon Huntsman Jr.: “There is no question that the Russian government interfered in the U.S. election last year. Moscow continues to meddle in the democratic processes of our friends and allies.”
January 2018 — Pompeo: “I have every expectation that they will continue to try and do that. But I am confident that America will be able to have a free and fair election — that we’ll push back in a way that is sufficiently robust that the impact they have on our election won’t be great.”
February 2018 — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: “I think it’s important we just continue to say to Russia: ‘Look, if you think we don’t see what you’re doing, we do see it and you need to stop. If you don’t, you are going to just continue to invite consequences for yourself.’ ”
February 2018 — Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats: “Persistent and disruptive cyber operations will continue against the United States and our European allies using elections as opportunities to undermine democracy. . . . At a minimum, we expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.”
“Frankly, the United States is under attack,” Coats said.
February 2018 — National Security Agency head Mike Rogers: “I believe that President [Vladimir] Putin has clearly come to the conclusion there’s little price to pay here, and that therefore I can continue this activity. . . . Everything, both as the director of NSA and what I see on the Cyber Command side, leads me to believe that if we don’t change the dynamic here, this is going to continue and 2016 won’t be viewed as something isolated.”
March 2018 — Coats: “We have not seen evidence of a robust effort yet on the part of Russia, but we know their malign activities continue to exist.”
May 2018 — Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, after briefing lawmakers with Coats and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray: “We see them continuing to conduct foreign influence campaigns. … We need to be prepared.”
May 2018 — Secretary of State Pompeo: “We have not been able to achieve deterrence, effective deterrence, of some of these efforts of the Russians. … We are at risk in 2018 and 2020. … We are always at risk.”
June 2018 — Mueller’s team: Russian groups “are continuing to engage in interference operations.”
July 2018 — Coats: “Focusing on the potential impact of these actions on our midterm elections misses the more important point: These actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not.”
July 2018 — Coats: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”
July 2018 — Coats: “It’s undeniable that the Russians are taking the lead on this. They are the ones that are trying to undermine our basic values. We need to make sure that we call them out on this, that they are not able to make sure they can do this in elections coming up.”
July 2018 — Pompeo: “We defended America’s fundamental strategic interests in Syria and Ukraine, and I personally made clear to the Russians that there will be severe consequences for interference in our democratic processes.”
August — Nielsen, at a White House press briefing alongside Coats, Wray, national security adviser John Bolton and NSA director Paul Nakasone: “Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs.”
Wray: “Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day.”
Coats: “The intelligence community continues to be concerned about the threats of upcoming elections, both the midterms and the presidential elections of 2020. … We acknowledge the threat, it is real, it is continuing, and we’re doing everything we can to have a legitimate election that the American people can have trust in.”
October — Justice Department indictment against alleged Russian agent: “The conspiracy has a strategic goal, which continues to this day, to sow division and discord in the U.S. political system.”
October — Joint statement from various agencies: “We are concerned about ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran, to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government policies. These activities also may seek to influence voter perceptions and decision making in the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections.”
November — Nielsen: “My biggest concern is that a foreign entity will take the opportunity after the election or the night of the election to attempt to sow discord on social media, suggesting something did not work as it should.”
November — Joint statement from Nielsen, Wray, Coats and Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “Americans should be aware that foreign actors — and Russia in particular — continue to try to influence public sentiment and voter perceptions through actions intended to sow discord.”
January — Coats, appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee with Wray and CIA director Gina Haspel: “We assess that foreign actors will view the 2020 U.S. elections as an opportunity to advance their interests. We expect them to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other’s experiences and efforts in previous elections.”
April — Mueller’s full report is released, offering detailed analysis of Russia’s efforts and including warnings about future actions.
April — Wray: “We are very much viewing 2018 as just kind of a dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020,” adding that the Russian effort “is not just an election-cycle threat. It is pretty much a 365-day-a-year threat.”
April — Pompeo: “You can see the Russian efforts over an extended period of time. And we should expect in 2050 the Russians will be at it still.”
May — Pompeo: “We’ve said this not only about the Russians but about other countries, as well. Our elections are important and sacred, and they must be kept free and fair and with no outside country interfering.”
May — Mueller: “I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments — that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interference in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.”
July — Coats, Wray: At a secure briefing of members of Congress, the officials warned about “active threats” to the United States.
July — Wray: “The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections. … My view is until they stop, they haven’t been deterred enough.”
July — Former special counsel Mueller: “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious. As I said on May 29, this deserves the attention of every American.”
Over the course of this history, Trump has generally denied Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. politics or dismissed those efforts as part of many from many actors. Shortly before the midterm elections, Trump did expand the authority of U.S. agencies to fight back against Russian threats.
Publicly, though, he has maintained an air of skepticism. Sitting beside Putin last month, Trump jokingly told his counterpart not to interfere in the election.
In May, The Washington Post reported that outside observers have concerns that the country is insufficiently prepared for future interference. That, in part, was blamed on a lack of leadership from the White House.
As Mueller was leaving Capitol Hill on Wednesday, the Senate was considering two bills meant to address cybersecurity, including one that would require that foreign offers of assistance be reported.
The bills were blocked by a Republican senator.