As President Trump’s own FBI director warns that Russians are planning to try to undermine American democracy in the next presidential election, Republican lawmakers led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) are blocking bills aimed at blocking foreign hackers from states’ voting systems.
Why? Republicans have policy objections to the legislation, but it seems clear that politics is at the forefront of McConnell’s decision-making. Specifically, the politics of pleasing Trump.
Trump is so sensitive to findings that Russians tried to help him win in 2016 that a Cabinet secretary was warned against briefing him on it. He’s repeatedly sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence community about whether Russians interfered. He’s said he might accept foreign help in his 2020 reelection. And last month, he made light of it all when he mock-scolded Putin in front of cameras. “Don’t meddle in the election,” he said, waving a finger and wearing a smile.
That puts McConnell in a tough spot: Pass legislation, which election security experts say is needed, and risk sparking the president’s ire, or block the legislation — and risk increased Russia election interference and public ridicule.
McConnell has decided to stand by Trump. Purely politically speaking, it makes sense. Trump has the authority to make or break any other legislation McConnell might want passed before his own reelection campaign next year in a Trump-friendly state.
McConnell said he won’t move the legislation forward because the federal government is already working with states to address election interference and that passing more legislation would be too heavy-handed, since states run their own elections. Most, but not all, of his caucus agrees with his position.
The decision to back Trump over passing legislation that election security experts support has opened him up to some severe criticism. MSNBC host and former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough dubbed McConnell “Moscow Mitch” (which is trending on Twitter), and Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank accused McConnell of being a “Russian asset.” (On Monday, McConnell responded in a fiery speech on the Senate floor to that column, accusing Milbank and other critics of “modern-day McCarthyism.”)
McConnell’s decision not to poke the president has earned him praise from Trump on Tuesday, who also helped McConnell fight back against some of the sharpest criticism against him.
“I think The Washington Post is a Russian asset by comparison,” Trump told reporters. “Mitch McConnell loves our country. He’s done a great job.”
And then Trump said something that underscored how closely intertwined are bipartisan concerns about Russian election interference with his own touchiness that his 2016 win wouldn’t have happened without Russia:
"Mitch McConnell is a man that knows less about Russia and Russian influence than even Donald Trump, and I know nothing,” he said.
Meaning: I didn’t know Russia was going to interfere in 2016, and neither did McConnell. So because we had nothing to do with it, there should be no reason to pass legislation trying to stop them from doing it again.
The problem with all this is that Trump’s own top intelligence officials say Russia is definitely trying to interfere in 2020 like it did in 2016. “The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections,” FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testified to the Senate last week.
A bipartisan Senate report released last week found that Russians tried to hack into election systems in all 50 states in 2016. The report by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III said the FBI believed that in 2018, Russians “successfully gain[ed] access to the network of at least one Florida county government.”
And Mueller, arguably the premier expert on how Russia interfered in the 2016 election after leading a nearly two-year investigation on it, warned in his testimony last week to Congress that Russians are trying to meddle again “as we sit” here.
Election security experts say that while there’s still time to strengthen states’ election systems before 2020, the political momentum may never be as strong as it is right now, after Mueller testified.
Congress recently approved $380 million to revamp election systems in states, but that’s not sufficient. It won’t, for example, fund machines in all 50 states that can leave paper trails of votes and conduct audits after the election to make sure every vote is counted and nothing was hacked.
“Experts have said if we want to do everything we need to do to harden our election systems in all 50 states,” said Ned Price, a former national security spokesman under the Obama administration. “ ... [T]hen it will require much more than $380 million, and it will require it soon, because these upgrades take time, and the clock is ticking.”
The legislation that House Democrats (and one Republican, Rep. Brian Mast of Florida) passed recently and that McConnell is blocking in the Senate does “some basic things” to protect U.S. elections, said Suzanne Spaulding, who was an undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama. The package of bills tries to address disinformation campaigns on social media and ties some $600 million in funding for new election systems in the states to requirements that they upgrade their equipment to make sure they are less hackable.
“That’s important to make sure our elections are secure,” she said, “but what’s critically important is we have a way of assuring the public that their vote was counted as cast.”
McConnell says it’s his detractors who are playing politics. “I’m not going to let Democrats and their water carriers in the media use Russia’s attack on our democracy as a Trojan horse for partisan wish list items that would not actually make our elections any safer,” he said Tuesday.
That clock Price mentioned is ticking. And McConnell, backed by Trump, is willing to wait it out.