The United States is and has been under attack by Putin’s Russian Federation. This isn’t news to informed citizens; it’s been in the public domain for years now. However, as time passes and more investigations unearth the vast scale and severity of Putin’s hostile acts against this nation, the national security apparatus has never been more sure of what the Russians did in 2016, what they’re doing now, and what they intend to do during the 2020 presidential election.
The Russian threat
Putin has plotted and deployed a cyberwar on two fronts against the United States. The first front involves infiltrating our electoral systems to gather intelligence on American voters, and probing for vulnerabilities in the technical infrastructure that facilitates electoral regulation and administration. If the Russians find just a single exploit in a single state, they’ll have the ability to sabotage the outcome of the 2020 election.
The second front is an insidious and highly-targeted campaign to influence the election by infecting the very fabric of our society. This is dispensed mostly through social media. There’s literally an army of cyber soldiers –manifested by humans and artificial intelligence– whose task is to corrupt the hearts and minds of American voters. This is carried out by fake news campaigns: attacking candidates unfavorable to Russian interests while promoting candidates favorable to Russian interests.
An example of this type of interference is the 2016 hack on the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) network. They stole tens of thousands of emails from the DNC. Some of these emails were released via DCLeaks in the summer of 2016. However, what’s most revealing about their intentions was the timing of their release. They saved nearly 20,000 emails mined from the personal gmail account of John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. These emails were systematically released in October 7, 2016, just 30 minutes after news outlets began running Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape, which featured Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. At the time, the Access Hollywood tape was widely thought –even from within the Trump campaign– to ruin Trump’s bid for the presidency. However, the release of Podesta’s emails served as a timely distraction which saved Trump’s candidacy. And for the rest of the month, to keep the attention on the emails and off the Access Hollywood tape, Wikileaks portioned out daily email releases until the end of October, nearly a week before Election Day. Wikileaks accomplished this feat by working with a hacker, at the time, only known as “Gucifer 2.0.” During the Mueller investigation, it was revealed that the Gucifer 2.0 persona was actually an operation carried out by Russia’s modern-day KGB, the Russian military intelligence agency GRU.
The Russians manufacture propaganda and disperse it on social media platforms. Their propaganda is spread by unwitting Americans, thinking they’re viewing factual news based in reality. They also paid for advertisements on these platforms to ensure their propaganda reaches a wider audience.
The Russians, as seen in 2016, are especially interested in targeting swing districts. These are districts that are especially unpredictable since the political party affiliations amongst the electorate are neck and neck. Flipping swing districts, one district at a time, would have the most significant overall impact on a state’s Electoral College votes.
After the 2016 presidential election, every single one of our intelligence agencies investigated, concluded, and concurred that Russia interfered in the election. The Mueller investigation not only corroborated what the intelligence agencies found, but compounded on it. The Mueller team was able to convict 26 Russian nationals, as well as three Russian companies who conspired to influence the 2016 presidential election. Mueller dedicated an entire volume of his report –nearly 200 pages– to Russian Interference, and as the report concluded, “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”
And over 2 ½ years later, investigators are still uncovering just how large a web the Russian’s managed to weave. The Senate Intelligence Committee, just a little over a week ago, released a bipartisan report that concluded the Russians targeted the electoral infrastructure, as well as voter registration databases, in every single state in America.
Why Trump and McConnell refuse to protect American elections
Putin attacked the lifeblood of American democracy –the electoral process– in 2016. The evidence is not only overwhelming, it’s indisputable. It was the first major cyberattack perpetrated against the United States during a presidential election, and it wasn’t a singular event. They are intent on striking again in 2020. However, the two most powerful men in the country, Trump and McConnell, are refusing to act, which is a clear and present threat to national security.
The problem starts with Trump. Despite the overwhelming body of evidence that proves Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, he still refuses to even acknowledge it. In fact, he’s continuously sided with Putin over the 2016 election interference. He’s literally taken the word of a brutal dictator over the word of the democratic institutions in his own country. It’s not only the disturbing fact of taking the word of a hostile foreign power over our entire national security apparatus, he values Putin’s word over some members of his own administration.
Just this week, Trump had a phone conversation with Putin. On Thursday, a reporter posed the question to Trump, “Mueller said last week that Russia is interfering in U.S. elections right now. Did you raise that with Putin?” Trump responded, “You don’t really believe this, do you?” The reporter retorted, “He said it last week. Did you raise it?” Trump then said, “We didn’t talk about it.” Trump then went on to lie about Mueller’s testimony and made crude comments about Mueller’s acuity during his testimony.
Trump’s unwillingness to acknowledge Russian interference isn’t out of ignorance. It’s due to two main reasons: pride and greed. His fragile ego can’t accept the fact he didn’t win solely based on his electability. Therefore, any inference of election interference implies he’s quite possibly an illegitimate president.
Then there’s greed. He knows the Russian’s gave him, at the very least, an edge in an already tight election –an election in which he lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes. Since being elected, Trump’s highest approval rating was 46% and his average approval rating is 40% (Gallup). By all metrics, he’s an unpopular president amongst the majority of the American people. It’s reasonable to assume Trump doesn’t think he could be reelected without Russian interference. And therefore, he’s willing to betray the sanctity of American democracy in order to get himself reelected. There are other unconfirmed factors that may also be at play. He has a long, documented history of having financial and business ties to Russia. During the 2016 campaign, he was actively trying to close a deal with the Russian government (i.e. Putin) to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. There’s also the possibility of the Russian’s having compromising material against him.
Enter Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. He’s ruled over the Senate like a dictator –continuously blocking bills from reaching the Senate floor for a vote. This is especially true when it comes to the election security bills: he’s blocked nine over the past two years. On July 25th, he blocked two election security bills in a single day.
McConnell’s refusal to allow duly-elected members of the U.S. Senate to vote on an election security bill has branded him with a moniker that’s unlikely to fade away: Moscow Mitch. McConnell hasn’t been happy with his new nickname, which prompted him to justify his decision to block the bills by saying, “I’m not going to let Democrats and their water carriers in the media to use Russia’s attack on our democracy as a Trojan horse for a partisan wish list of items.”
These so-called partisan “wish-list items” include making paper ballots a requirement, the protection to audit elections to ensure no indications of sabotage were present, ensuring states and local governments have the resources needed to update and maintain the integrity of electoral infrastructure, among other protections. These items aren’t ideological, they’re common-sense protections against the foreign interference that’s already happened.
The only conclusion that can be made is McConnell understands Putin wants Trump and Trump-supporting members of Congress in power. Therefore, allowing these protections to be put to a vote and likely passed as law, has the real potential to damage GOP electoral prospects in 2020. There’s only one conclusion to be made: McConnell is open to Russian interference as long as it benefits his party.
After McConnell’s most recent election security bill block, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee said, “Russia’s biggest ally in its quest to infiltrate elections again is Mitch McConnell.” He also added, “I believe foreign, hostile actors are going to make what happened in 2016 look like small potatoes compared to 2016.”
Justin Amash (I-MI), who was a lifelong Republican up until a little over a month ago when he began speaking out against Trump’s obstruction of justice as documented in the Mueller Report. Amash was the only Republican member of the House to speak out against Trump’s criminality. He was outcast for doing so, and feeling dissatisfied with the Republican Party’s complacency with Trump’s behavior, he left the GOP and became an Independent. Amash tweeted about the McConnell situation, “There was a time when the GOP establishment hated Donald Trump. They then realized they could use a man like this—unprincipled, transactional, shameless—to push their agenda. McConnell and McCarthy are giddy about Trump. Conservatives in Congress are the ones privately horrified.”
The Washington Post columnist, Dana Milbank, called out McConnell’s obstructive conduct in a piece entitled, Mitch McConnell is a Russian Asset. In the piece, Milbank wrote, “[McConnell is] arguably more than any other American, doing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bidding.”
It’s a seriously dangerous prospect that the two most powerful men in the country are willing to look the other way while a hostile foreign power ramps up their election-interference machine. This is not being done for any misguided political ideology, it’s being done to maintain power. The promise of democracy is that power is vested in the people, and it’s the people who have the power to elect our leaders into positions of power, as granted by the constitution.
This is beyond McConnell choosing party over country; he’s choosing power over the integrity of our democracy. Trump and McConnell are, in one way or the other, in bed with Putin, and our national security is at risk because of it. They can hug the flag and wear their American-flag lapel pins, but it’s merely a facade. These men aren’t patriots, they’re treacherous politicians willing to win at all costs –even if it means selling out their country to a foreign adversary.
As George Washington once warned, “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence … the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”