Former FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave dramatically different accounts of the inner workings of the Trump White House when they testified at a pair of Senate Intelligence Committee hearings this month. But the two men agreed on a critical, though largely unnoticed fact: President Trump is not very interested in the Russian attacks on our electoral system.
Forget for a moment the possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials and you’re still left with the fact that the Russian government attempted to sabotage our electoral system. While there is no public information suggesting Russia altered votes or vote counts, we know its operatives have attempted to hack voter registration databases and software. As Bloomberg News recently reported, “the Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states.”
The Russians also tried to shape American political debates. They hacked into Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign staffers’ personal email accounts, and reportedly tried to penetrate computers belonging to the presidential campaign of Marco Rubio and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative DC think tank, among other political entities.
As numerous intelligence experts have pointed out, Russia’s cyberattacks were meant to help the presidential campaign of Donald Trump in order to undermine our institutions and people’s faith in our democratic process.
We know President Obama was interested in this issue and received regular briefings on the attacks. Obama reportedly spoke directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the matter, telling him to “cut it out.” Some of the criticism of President Obama for not doing more and not releasing more information about Russia’s activities to the public during the campaign is fair. But at the very least, we know Obama was at least overseeing this matter and saw it as a threat.
On the other hand, candidate Trump encouraged the Russians to hack Democrats. In the last public press conference of his campaign in July 2016, he responded to reports that hackers had pilfered email messages from the Clinton campaign’s email server: “I will tell you this. Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Since taking the oath of office, President Trump has repeatedly called the Russia investigation by U.S. intelligence agencies “fake news” and “a witch hunt,” among other things. Three months after becoming president, Trump suggested that Ukrainians might be behind the hacking and trying to pin the blame on Russia. This theory, of course, directly contradicts the findings of all 17 U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, including the CIA, FBI, and NSA. In public comments during the campaign and since becoming president, Trump has been noticeably friendly towards Russia and repeatedly tried to defend Putin or deflect questions about US-Russian relations.
Perhaps Trump’s comments writing off the Russia investigation were, in his mind, focused on the part of the investigation relating to possible collusion between his campaign and Russian hacking. Sessions and Comey’s testimonies suggest otherwise however.
Take this exchange between Comey and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM):
HEINRICH: Did the president in any of those interactions that you've shared with us today ask you what you should be doing or what our government should be doing or the intelligence community to protect America against Russian interference in our election system?
COMEY: I don't recall a conversation like that.
HEINRICH: Do you find it —
COMEY: Not with President Trump.
COMEY: I attended a fair number of meetings on that with President Obama.
In the same hearing, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) asked a similar question
MANCHIN: Finally, did the president ever show any concern or interest or curiosity about what the Russians were doing?
COMEY: Thank you, senator. As I said earlier, I don't remember any conversations with the president about the Russia election interference.
Sen. Manchin asked Attorney General Sessions similar questions. Under oath, Sessions said he could not recall any meetings in which President Trump expressed concern about the Russian interference in our elections. Sessions also acknowledged that he has never been briefed on the Russian interference.
Russia’s involvement in attempts to influence our election is a fact. The Russian hackers may not have found ways to change votes in 2016, but U.S. intelligence agencies are convinced that unless we take action they will be trying again in 2018, 2020, and beyond. Common Cause recently released its Country Over Party agenda, a 10-step plan to address the Russian interference. The plan calls for simple voting security measures like the use of paper ballots and post-election audits, and urges Congress to approve significant funding for new voting machines and election equipment.
Many rightly call Russia’s interference in the 2016 election an attack, possibly even an act of war, against the United States. So what are we to make of sworn testimony by the Attorney General and former FBI Director that President Trump is not interested in this attack or defending American democracy against future cyber-attacks? For any patriotic American, that should be the most alarming takeaway of the recent high-profile congressional hearings.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Voting and Elections