House Democrats are readying a major legislative push focused on securing elections, a response to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings of Russian interference in the 2016 election that took on new resonance after President Trump said he would be willing to take dirt on a political opponent from a foreign government.
Legislation under discussion would, among other things, bar political campaigns from sharing private material with foreign governments, require them to report offers of foreign help and clarify that it is illegal to seek to influence U.S. elections by conspiring with foreign nationals.
The new campaign, discussed internally as an effort to “end crime, corruption and coverups,” according to two Democrats familiar with the effort, has been in the works for weeks, dating to the submission of Mueller’s report in March. It will combine legislative measures with a fresh oversight push from key congressional committees, including hearings meant to highlight foreign threats to U.S. elections.
The effort, the Democrats said, is meant to be separate from the polarizing congressional investigations into the other part of Mueller’s findings, describing potential obstruction of justice by Trump. Instead, it will focus on closing gaps identified in the first part of the report.
“It’s like this giant billboard screaming at members of Congress: Do something to protect this democracy,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who is playing a leading role in assembling the legislation, said of the report. “It’s basically a manual on what we ought to do, what we gotta look out for in terms of the next effort to intervene or interfere or meddle in our elections.”
The Democrats familiar with the internal discussions said there is a goal to get legislation passed through the House before the August recess. If so, it likely will face an uphill battle in the GOP-led Senate, where leadership has shown hostility toward Democratic-led efforts to fortify the nation’s election laws and security.
In the Senate Thursday, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) sought to call up and pass legislation requiring candidates to report attempts at foreign elections interference to federal authorities. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a staunch ally to the president, blocked the move, calling the legislation “overbroad.”
Democrats are betting that focusing a spotlight on these issues will force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and fellow Republicans to act. “Maybe we can push him to be more engaged, and I think that’s part of the plan,” Sarbanes said. “Mueller reported on this. We’re grabbing it. We’re running with it. We’re going to make proposals to try and do something real.”
Some parts of the legislative package have already passed the House as part of H.R. 1, the sprawling ethics and election reform bill that Democrats passed in March as a centerpiece of the legislative agenda. But other elements are new.
One bill introduced Wednesday by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) was prompted by revelations that the Trump presidential campaign in 2016 shared internal polling data with a Russian political consultant believed to have ties to Russian intelligence, and that campaign officials failed to notify the FBI when they met at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer who reportedly offered “dirt”on Hillary Clinton.
The legislation would require a campaign to file a “suspicious activity report” to federal law enforcement whenever a foreign government offers assistance aimed at covertly helping the campaign — creating a legal duty for candidates and campaigns to tell authorities about suspected foreign interference.
“The Trump Tower meeting was a blatant offer of help from a foreign government,” Malinowski said in a recent interview. “In that situation, it doesn’t appear that there was anything illegal in accepting the meeting. But under this legislation they would have been obliged to report the offer because it is illegal for foreign governments to interfere in our election.”
Trump on Wednesday told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News that would have few qualms about accepting damaging information about an opponent from a foreign power.
“I think you might want to listen; there isn’t anything wrong with listening,” Trump said. “If somebody called from a country, Norway, ‘We have information on your opponent,’ oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”
“If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI, if I thought there was something wrong,” he added.
Federal campaign law bars contributions, defined as money or some “other thing of value,” from foreign nationals. But in the Trump campaign case, when a Russian lawyer offered “dirt” on Clinton in the form of emails, that was not enough to establish a violation, in part because the dirt was never provided, and even if it were, it could be difficult to establish its monetary value.
Among the changes Democrats are discussion is clarifying that a “thing of value” would include opposition research, polling or any other campaign-related material, regardless of its dollar value.
Robert Bauer, a New York University law professor and former White House counsel under President Obama, said he believes current law is “very clear” that any research would be covered, and that the Mueller report acknowledges that.
In his view, he added, the Trump Tower meeting violated federal election law barring campaigns from soliciting help from a foreign government. “So in the case where somebody says we have something to offer you and the campaign indicates it’s open to that, schedules a meeting, invites them to come to the United States for the meeting to see what they have to provide, I think it arguably absolutely constitutes a solicitation.”
Another package of legislation is expected to focus more squarely on protecting election infrastructure from hacking and other direct intrusions. That package is being assembled by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairman of the Committee on House Administration, which has jurisdiction over election issues
She said Tuesday she is working quickly to produce an election security bill — one she said she hoped would be bipartisan. House leaders, Lofgren said, are pushing for action: “They’re eager to get something moving, as am I.”
Other provisions under consideration could tighten restrictions on foreign agents operating in the United States and how foreign money meant to influence American opinion is tracked and disclosed.
Mueller concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone in the Trump campaign with violating federal election law. There is no law that bars campaigns from sharing its proprietary information — including polling data — with a foreign government.
Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort shared internal polling data with his business partner Konstantin Kilimnik, whom U.S. officials suspect of having ties to Russia’s spy services. However, the special counsel did not establish that Manafort “coordinated” with the Russian government on its election-interference efforts.
But Malinowski contends that the data-sharing itself should be illegal, regardless of whether there is coordination. “We don’t know whether that happened or not,” Malinowski said. “But what our legislation would do is to prohibit the sharing of proprietary campaign information and the discussion of campaign strategy, with a foreign government.”
Parts of Malinowski’s bill are similar to legislation introduced this spring by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who are members of their chambers’ judiciary committees, and the bill that Warner, ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, sought to pass Thursday.
Malinowski, whose bill is titled the Anti-Collusion Act, said he was careful not to outlaw all foreign contacts. It would remain perfectly legitimate, for instance, for a foreign official to discuss policy matters with a candidate. But going beyond that should raise red flags, he said.
“At the heart of Trump’s world view seems to be the belief that everyone is crooked and dishonest, and that he’d be a chump not to bend the rules as well,” Malinowski said. “That’s all the more reason for Congress to say that there are still moral and legal standards that we live by.”