“They’re Doing It As We Sit Here…”

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Senator Mark Warner(left), Vice Chair and Senator Richard Burr, Chair, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

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It was a gorgeous sunny day, and we were visiting friends. But all four of us spent last Wednesday indoors, in front of the TV. We were watching Special Counselor Robert Mueller testify, first before the House Judiciary Committee, and then before the House Intelligence Committee.

We knew our vigil wasn’t accomplishing anything in the larger scheme of things, but we are all political junkies with deep concerns about the fate of American democracy, so we felt compelled to watch and listen.

And while many have faulted Mueller for his halting, weary performance and his insistence on sticking to the “four corners of his report,” much emerged from those hearings.

Most important, Mueller was quite emphatic that our democracy is under attack. When asked by Republican Congressman Will Hurd if he thought the Russian involvement was a single episode, he did not equivocate.

“No. It wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.” 

What’s more, Mueller said:

“Many more countries have developed the capabilities the Russians have done.”

We’ll get back to the implications of that statement shortly.

Here are what I felt were the most significant of Mueller’s responses:

*His report DID NOT exonerate the President.

*The finding of lack of complicity with the Russians by the President and his associates was based on insufficient evidence to reach that conclusion (and not the absence of evidence)

*The investigation into that matter was impeded—not only by those who were convicted of lying, but also by others who told “outright lies” or were “not telling the full truth.”

*Those individuals included President Trump.

When Florida Rep. Val Demings asked if the President’s written responses to Mueller’s questions about, among other matters, the Trump Tower Moscow plans, given under oath, were “inadequate and incomplete and weren’t always being truthful,” Mueller responded: “Generally.”

Many questions Trump did not answer, and when Demings asked if some of his other responses conflicted with other information the investigation had revealed, Mueller said, “Yes.”

*Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois read public comments that Trump had made about WikiLeaks— including “I love WikiLeaks” and “This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove”—and asked Mueller if any of these quotes disturbed him.

Mueller answered:
“Problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays, giving some hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity.”

*In a significant exchange that seemed to go beyond the “four corners of the report,” House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff questioned the Special Prosecutor:

Schiff: You believe knowingly accepting foreign assistance in a campaign to be unethical?
Mueller: And a crime…under certain circumstances.

Schiff: And it undermines our democratic institutions and is unpatriotic?
Mueller: True.

Schiff: And wrong?
Mueller: True.

Schiff: And we should hold our elected officials to a higher standard than the mere avoidance of criminality?
Mueller: Absolutely.

Schiff then asked if the need to act in an ethical manner is not only a moral one but also necessary so that it doesn’t expose the individual to compromise—which can be of a foreign nature.
Mueller: Yes.

Schiff: Blackmail?
Mueller: Also true.

Then Schiff noted the President’s denials. He’d said he hadn’t done business with the Russians. He also said if he had been doing business with Russia, “That’s not a crime. Why should I miss out on all those opportunities?”

Schiff concluded:

“We are all left to wonder whether the President is representing us or his own interests.”

I won’t go through the morning session with the House Judiciary Committee concerning potential obstruction of justice, other than to note that it yielded Mueller’s important statement that Trump could, indeed, be indicted after leaving office. 

(As I mentioned in my previous post, more than 1000 former prosecutors, who worked for both Democratic and Republican presidents, signed a statement that anyone other than the President [who couldn’t be charged due to a Justice Department precedent] would certainly have been indicted based on the findings in the Mueller Report.)

Somehow, all that possible criminality—and it seems fairly evident there was a good deal of it—does not get to me on the same visceral level as the President’s apparent indifference to/encouragement of the Russians’ disruptions of our elections.

Further evidence of the Russians’ impact came the next day, when the Senate Intelligence Committee released a bipartisan report, the first of several, stating that the Russians targeted the election systems in all 50 states in 2016 and actually probed the election systems of 21 states.

The report noted the Russians’ “unprecedented level of activity against state election infrastructure.” Though they found no evidence that any votes were changed, they observed that “Russian cyber actors were in a position to delete or change voter data” in Illinois’ voter registration database.

The report recommends that US intelligence agencies place a high priority in quickly identifying cyberattacks, and the Department of Homeland Security should develop clear channels of communication between the federal government and the states. Old outdated machines must be replaced, and paper ballots are important for backup of every vote cast.

In a statement, Committee Chair Richard Burr of North Carolina spoke of improvements that have been made “to bridge gaps in information sharing and shore up vulnerabilities” but said “There is still much work that remains to be done, however.”

Vice Chair Mark Warner of Virginia said,

“I hope the bipartisan findings and recommendations outlined in this report will underscore to the White House and all of our colleagues, regardless of political party, that the threat remains urgent, and we have a responsibility to defend our democracy against it.”

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to refuse to bring bipartisan legislation that has already passed the House to the Senate floor for a vote.

I’d like to return for a moment to Mueller’s comment that many other countries are now also pursuing ways to disrupt our elections.

One commenter noted that McConnell’s plans to keep the Republicans in control of the White House and Senate by stonewalling election system improvement funding may backfire. Iran and China, he suggested, may have other ideas about the best ways to disrupt our elections.

And I am deeply concerned that Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, who emphatically warned about the Russian involvement in testimony before Congress, and has been a target of Trump’s wrath for some time, has now “resigned.”

Trump has appointed John Ratcliffe, a Republican Congressman who strongly supports him, to replace Coats. (Senator Burr, the Intelligence Committee Chair and a Republican, has already said this nominee is unqualified.)

We know the President recently jokingly castigated Putin for his interference when they met. There is no reason to believe he will change his attitude and acknowledge and act upon this threat to our national security.

We Americans all have many important issues on our minds—pocketbook and healthcare matters, climate change and a host of others. We each have our priorities. But this is a huge issue for our democracy that I believe we must find time to act upon.

Our involvement in these matters—contacting our elected officials to urge them to fund cybersecurity measures on the state and county levels—is critically important.

Tomorrow begins the next round of debates among the Democratic candidates for President in 2020. I will be looking for those who are concerned and knowledgeable about these issues and are thinking about ways to protect our elections.

These candidates have a difficult balancing act—to show they’re tough enough to take on Trump in the general election—while not destroying one another in the primaries.

But true leadership requires strength, knowledge, character, and the ability to effectively communicate one’s vision for America.

Surely thoughtful approaches to preserving our democracy in the election in which each of them seeks to be the Democrats’ standard bearer should be a major aspect of the leadership they demonstrate to us now–when we sorely need it.

Do you agree with me about the importance of protecting our elections from cyberattacks? Polls generally say that most Americans don’t really care about this issue that much.  I hope those polls are wrong.

Annie