While the issue of Russian collusion is very clearly politically charged, concerns about election security and foreign interference have historically been more bipartisan. As Mitch McConnell has made clear, however, that’s no longer the case.
Although several Republican-controlled Senate committees are still trying to address potential meddling by foreign adversaries — the Judiciary Committee approved two election security bills last week — the Senate majority leader now says he won’t even bring election security bills up for a vote. It’s a position McConnell took last year, and one he’s standing by as pressure has ramped up to consider reinforcing US defenses ahead of 2020.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), chair of the Senate Rules Committee, which oversees aspects of election administration, laid out McConnell’s opposition during a hearing last week. “I think the majority leader just is of the view that this debate reaches no conclusion,” Blunt said, noting that he didn’t see the point in considering any election security bills in committee if they simply weren’t going to go anywhere.
McConnell’s decision is likely driven by a few factors: He’s acknowledging Trump’s aversion to the subject — which the president sees as too closely tied to questions about the outcome of the 2016 election — and he’s, once again, taking the heat for his caucus. What’s more, McConnell has argued that election security bills could get the federal government too involved in states’ efforts.
Blunt last week also tried to shift the blame to House Democrats, explaining that the “extreme” nature of HR 1 — a sweeping anti-corruption bill championed by Democrats that contains tenets on election security — made it even less likely that McConnell would consider such measures. In an interview with McClatchy in April, Blunt noted that his party was concerned Democrats would use an election security bill to introduce additional amendments addressing issues raised in HR 1, such as voting rights.
McConnell’s unwillingness to tackle election security isn’t just sending a political message, however; it also has massive consequences.
As a result of this inaction, the US Senate — which allocated $380 million in election security funds last year — is now effectively promoting a do-nothing approach to a subject that special counsel Robert Mueller and countless national security officials have raised as a serious threat that requires additional action. While US intelligence agencies and other bodies are doing what they can to bolster American defenses before the 2020 election, Republican leadership appears content to sit idly by despite numerous warnings about the need for more resources to prevent potential breaches.
As Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) explicitly stated during a hearing with Attorney General Bill Barr in May, it’s a cue that’s been coming directly from the White House. “It was Don McGahn,” Klobuchar said during the hearing while discussing the forces that blocked a bipartisan election security bill she’s co-sponsored with Sen. James Lankford (R-OK). “He called Republicans about the bill, didn’t want them to do it. And McConnell also didn’t want the bill to move forward. So it was a double-edged thing.”
President Trump’s position on such bills — and McConnell’s longstanding resistance to advancing them — could mean that they’ll remain stalled.
Experts have repeatedly warned about the ongoing threat from Russia in 2020
Acknowledgment of the threat Russia could pose to US elections in 2020 has come from all sides of the aisle.
“Russia’s ongoing efforts to interfere with our democracy are dangerous and disturbing,” McConnell noted in the wake of Mueller’s probe. FBI Director Christopher Wray has gone so far as to call 2018 the “dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020.” And Mueller highlighted the many ways that Russian operatives sought to interfere in the 2016 election via social media, hacked emails, and exploitation of local election systems as part of his comprehensive 400-page report.
Most recently, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis revealed that Russian hackers in 2016 were able to successfully breach voter databases in two of the state’s counties, though there was not evidence that they ultimately distorted election results, The Verge reports.
During a congressional hearing with Barr in May, both Democrats and Republicans on the Judiciary Committee expressed concerns about the potential for Russian interference to continue. As 101daily’s Jen Kirby reported, however, “Barr’s answers suggested that conditions still exist that would allow this scenario to repeat in 2020 — with unclear repercussions for those involved.”
While the FBI and DHS have significantly expanded their efforts to combat interference, Senate bills would help take other steps to streamline communications between states and the federal government. The offering from Klobuchar and Lankford would make back-up paper ballots mandatory and formalize DHS roles on the issue, for example.
Since these bills have floundered, though, there’s no indication that these extra resources will be put in place anytime soon.
Trump doesn’t want to talk about election security, or anything vaguely tied to the Russia investigation
There’s one big reason Trump doesn’t want to talk about election security: It’s too closely tied to questions about the results of his own election. In his mind, acknowledging Russian meddling could mean casting doubt on his 2016 victory.
According to a report by the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, Ellen Nakashima, and Shane Harris, per current and former administration officials, “During discussions in the Oval Office, Trump has regularly conflated the threat of foreign interference with attacks on the legitimacy of his election.”
Because of this, Trump has tried to skirt the issue of election security altogether — and his top homeland security officials have reportedly been warned off trying to get him to address it.
A recent call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin underscores this dynamic: In that conversation, Trump said he and Putin talked about the Mueller report, but didn’t broach the issue of potential meddling in 2020 at all. During repeated instances in the past, Trump has also emphasized that he takes Putin’s denials about interference at face value.
The Post’s story noted that Trump’s refusal to tackle the issue head on served as a roadblock for developing a more comprehensive strategy even as federal agencies coordinated with all 50 states to provide election security infrastructure and support ahead of the 2020 election.
As his actions make all too clear, McConnell is just fine following Trump’s lead.
In a Hill story on Blunt’s recent remarks, a McConnell spokesperson directed the reporter to a recent speech the Leader made emphasizing that the case was closed on the Mueller investigation. As part of that speech, McConnell argued that lawmakers should move on from the Mueller review and blamed the Obama administration for not taking Russian interference efforts more seriously. “The previous administration sent the Kremlin the signal they could get away with almost anything,” he said.
As 101daily’s Aaron Rupar noted, “it is McConnell, not Democrats, who seems to be having an abrupt awakening about Russia’s election interference” — but that doesn’t mean he’s willing to do much to address the issue. And on both Mueller and foreign interference, many other Republicans seem relatively content to fall in line.
There’s been some movement in Senate Judiciary, but it’s unclear if it will actually go anywhere
There has been some bipartisan movement on election security — and some of that, interestingly, has happened in the Judiciary Committee, which is led by Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s staunchest defenders on the Hill.
Last week, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled panel approved two bills on the subject that have garnered backing from both Republicans and Democrats.
The first was the DETER Act, legislation sponsored by Sens. Graham, Dick Durbin, Chuck Grassley, and Richard Blumenthal, that would bar any individual convicted of interfering in US elections from obtaining a visa to enter the US. The second was the Defending the Integrity of Voting Systems Act, sponsored by Blumenthal, Graham, and Sheldon Whitehouse, which would make it a federal crime to hack into a local election system.
“I am very pleased with the committee’s performance in trying to secure our elections as we head into the 2020 presidential election,” Graham said in a statement last Thursday. Despite his closeness with the president, Graham has not been shy in saying that Congress hasn’t done “enough” to counter Russian interference efforts. With McConnell blocking such efforts, however, it’s possible that Graham is able to stick his neck out without worrying too much about concrete repercussions.
As evidenced by the Senate Majority Leader’s ongoing stance on this issue, it’s unclear whether these bills will get any real consideration. A McConnell spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
With the election approaching, this stalling could be just as effective as rejecting these bills outright. As the months tick down ahead of 2020, lawmakers are simply running out of time.