The largely partisan responses to the Mueller Report and the special counsel’s subsequent press conference last week were predictable.
The prevailing reactions are calls, from Democrats, to keep investigating the president and his administration, while Republicans say the report is a total exoneration, case closed, move along.
A unifying problem with both of those narratives is that each fails to adequately focus on the most troubling and concrete allegation produced by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team: Russian interests, including agents of the Russian government, made efforts to interfere in our 2016 presidential election.
“As alleged by the grand jury in an indictment, Russian intelligence officers who were part of the Russian military launched a concerted attack on our political system,” Mueller said May 29 in his first public statement during the two-year investigation. “The indictment alleges that they used sophisticated cyber techniques to hack into computers and networks used by the Clinton campaign. They stole private information, and then released that information through fake online identities and through the organization WikiLeaks. The releases were designed and timed to interfere with our election and to damage a presidential candidate.”
The rhetoric from Republicans and Democrats threatens to obscure this important finding, backed by the U.S. intelligence community assessment, that Russia attempted to interfere in our elections with a preference for Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton. By diverting attention away from this, we are poised to leave the door open for future foreign interference in our democratic process.
The real takeaway, as Mueller emphasized last week, should be the demonstrable threat we faced and continue to face from foreign actors trying to meddle in our elections. We don’t have to look very hard at our current state of affairs, marked by misinformation, confusion and extreme polarization, to know that effort has at least been partially successful, even when there’s no evidence of actual votes being changed.
Maine’s two senators, both members of the Intelligence Committee, have encouragingly taken more nuanced approaches to the report and highlighted the need for action to safeguard our elections. The Senate Intelligence Committee is working to conclude its own bipartisan investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“First and foremost, Special Counsel Mueller clearly and without doubt confirms the intelligence community’s assessment that foreign powers sought to interfere in the 2016 election. These efforts, perpetrated by the Russian government, were a sophisticated, thorough and direct attack on our democratic principles,” Sen. Angus King said in April when the redacted version of the report was first released. “This is an incredibly serious threat to our American system of government that we must work aggressively to prevent in future elections.”
Sen. Susan Collins and King have been involved with several bipartisan bills aiming to bolster election security, but those efforts, including the Secure Elections Act, have met resistance from Republican leadership and the administration.
“I’m hopeful there will be a sufficient number of us that we can make it go somewhere. In my judgment, this job is by no means done. And I hope that when we finish up the Intelligence Committee report it will become even clearer to people, the number and depth of intrusions,” Collins told the BDN in an interview last week. “I’m not implying that there is any evidence, because there is not, that the Russians changed voter outcomes. But there is more evidence that they probed voter lists. So think about this, if you remove people from voter lists, or if you change their address or manipulate the data, you could create havoc and you could prevent people from being able to vote. So, this is very concerning and I think a lot more needs to be done.”
She also pointed to work the Trump administration is doing to coordinate with states on election security.
“It’s stuff that doesn’t percolate up to the level of national attention,” acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said Sunday on “Meet the Press.” “But our Department of Justice, our [Department of Homeland Security], have been working with states and local governments to make sure that no foreign government, Russia or anybody, has the ability to do, what in 2020, what they did in 2016.”
That’s a good quote, but if the administration and Republican leadership are in fact committed to protecting us from future interference, they will put politics and presidential egos aside to work on legislation that can further help safeguard our elections while respecting the primary role and authority that states have in the process.
“I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments — that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election,” Mueller said last week. “That allegation deserves the attention of every American.”