Is it? Is it really? Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) ripped Donald Trump in remarks prefacing the release of a minority report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Russian interference in Western elections. “Never before has a US president so clearly ignored such a grave threat,” Cardin intones.
Er, ah, Senator? Tom Cotton might want to have a chat with you on that claim:
"Never before has a U.S. president so clearly ignored such a grave threat, and a growing threat, to U.S. national security," Democrat Sen. Cardin asserts while discussing new report on deterring Russian interference in upcoming US midterm election. https://t.co/E50v4arZdW pic.twitter.com/YLo3JDJzTe
— NBC News (@NBCNews) January 10, 2018
One year after U.S. intelligence agencies detailed the scale and scope of Russian efforts to undermine the 2016 presidential elections, the United States still lacks “a coherent, comprehensive and coordinated approach” to countering potential future threats from the Kremlin or elsewhere, a new Democratic congressional report finds.
President Donald Trump’s negligence in acknowledging and responding to the threat of continued Russian interference is among the biggest factors leaving the U.S. at risk, Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee assert in the report released Wednesday.
The 200-page document lays out in detail how Russia, over two decades under President Vladimir Putin, developed, refined and executed tactics to undermine democratic institutions throughout Europe and, ultimately, the U.S.
The comprehensive study, based on various non-classified sources including feedback from many of America’s European allies, is the first from any congressional entity dealing with the 2016 elections. It comes two months before the first votes are cast in this year’s midterm elections that will decide control of Congress and state houses across the country. Its authors say it is the first government report that lays out the scale and the scope of the threat from Russia, and begins to address comprehensively how it can be deterred.
It’s worth pointing out that minority parties usually rush out their own reports for political reasons, rather than wait for the full report to contain their own analysis. This appears no different. It’s unfortunate that Trump sees warnings about Russian hostility and activity as entirely relating to the legitimacy of his victory in the 2016 election, but stunts like this are mainly to blame. That comes in large part because partisans have made it easy to confuse the two, and Cardin’s rogue release doesn’t help matters.
Republicans on the SFRC will probably have a somewhat different view of the same material. However, the estimate of the Russian threat will probably be similar, and for good reason — the Russians have been interfering in Western elections for years, decades if you count the Soviet Union. They have had varying degrees of impact, although it’s probably been surpassingly minor in most cases, and it didn’t change the outcome in 2016 either.
In fact, Republicans had been raising that warning for years prior to the sudden Democratic interest in the subject after they lost an election they should have won. And contrary to Cardin’s claims today, there is ample precedent for presidential dismissal of the threat. Barack Obama had been warned repeatedly of Russian intel ops in elections, including propaganda and corruption, so much so that Cotton tried to push Obama into action in early 2016 — and Obama refused:
The White House opposed a Republican-led push earlier this year to create an executive-branch task force to battle Russia’s covert information operations, according to a document obtained by POLITICO.
Sen. Tom Cotton, a leading GOP defense hawk who has long urged President Barack Obama to take a harder line on Russia, sought to force the White House to create a panel with representatives from a number of government agencies to counter Russian efforts “to exert covert influence,” including by exposing Russian “falsehoods, agents of influence, corruption, human rights abuses, terrorism, and assassinations.”
But the administration rejected the call, saying in a letter to Congress that hasn’t been released publicly that the panel would duplicate existing efforts to battle Russian influence operations — an argument Cotton rejects.
In fact, as former intel analyst John Schindler pointed out in 2015, Obama had killed the “duplicate” operation as a sop to Putin:
Nearly a year ago, the State Department created a Counter-Disinformation Team, inside its Bureau of International Information Programs, as a small, start-up effort to resist Russian disinformation. Consisting of only a handful of staffers, it was supposed to expose the most laughable Moscow lies about America and the West that are disseminated regularly via RT and other outlets. They created a beta website and prepared to wage the struggle for truth online.
Alas, their website never went live. Recently the State Department shut down the tiny Counter-Disinformation Team and any efforts by the Obama administration to resist Putin’s propaganda can now be considered dead before birth. Intelligence Community sources tell me that it was closed out of a deep desire inside the White House “not to upset the Russians.” …
Who killed the Counter-Disinformation Team and why? What did the team produce during the time it existed? What has become of this product? How many people were on it? Does the State Department not consider countering Kremlin disinformation to be in its remit? Does the White House agree? What about the National Security Council? Is anybody in the U.S. government authorized to debunk Putin’s lies – if so, who? If not, why not?
And of course, Obama himself completely rejected the idea that Russia was a geopolitical foe when Mitt Romney warned of the danger in a 2012 presidential debate. Obama dismissed Romney with a quip:
Barack Obama ignored this threat until almost right before Election Day, just as he ignored and downplayed the Russian threat for 94 out of the 96 months of his presidency. Democrats followed suit whenever Republicans would raise warnings about Russia and Vladimir Putin, accusing them of warmongering and clinging to Cold War sensibilities. Cardin and others who point the finger at Trump seem to forget who was president in 2015-16, and who had the responsibility to defend against foreign meddling in elections.
Unfortunately, this kind of blame-shifting and hypocrisy is all too precedented in Washington DC. Russia is a threat, and has been a threat since Putin came to power in Moscow. The present administration certainly needs to wake up to that reality, but don’t for a minute think that his predecessor ever had a clear-eyed view of that threat until it embarrassed him.