DETER-rence? Bipartisan bill takes aim at future foreign interference in elections

Lost in all of the bluster over supposed collusion with Russians occurred in the 2016 election, the fact that Russia has targeted our elections for quite a long time. Their impact on the American psyche after this election cycle will no doubt encourage other geopolitical foes to follow suit, and Congress has debated how to set up significant disincentives — at least to getting caught at it. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) introduced the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act today which sets triggers for sanctions on nations and individuals for interfering in US elections, The Hill reports:

Under the bill introduced Tuesday, it would be up to the Trump administration to decide the retaliatory measures for potential election interference by China, Iran and North Korea, and any other nation that the administration singles out as a threat. The administration would be required to report to Congress within 90 days of the bill’s enactment on plans to counter potential election interference from each specific country.

In the event of future interference specifically by Russia, the bill expands on penalties already imposed by the Countering America’s Adversaries Act of 2017. For instance, it mandates that the U.S. government immediately impose sanctions on Russia’s finance, energy and defense sectors. It would also blacklist senior Russian political figures or oligarchs identified under the law, preventing them from entering the United States and blocking their assets.

Actions that would elicit retaliation include a foreign government or agent purchasing political advertisements to influence an election; using social media to spread false information; hacking and releasing or modifying election or campaign-related information; or hindering access to elections infrastructure, such as websites for polling places.

“We cannot be a country where foreign intelligence agencies attempt to influence our political process without consequences,” Rubio said. “This bill will help to ensure the integrity of our electoral process by using key national security tools to dissuade foreign powers from meddling in our elections.”

The specifics of action in the present relate to Russia, but concern has risen over the potential for interference from other malefactors. China is always a concern, or at least has been since the 1996 money-laundering scandal that much of the news media has forgotten in the hyperventilating over alleged collusion with Russia. For instance, the Washington Post editorial board took note of testimony in 1997 about just how far illegal China cash made it up the Clinton campaign and DNC chain:

Mr. Trie has left the country – he is in China – and has declined thus far to testify before the committee. But the hearings, now adjourned until September, provided a pretty good outline if not a full picture of his operation. Clearly one of the services he performed was to launder illegal but early sought-after contributions from abroad. The hearings offered these glimpses:

(1) Mr. Cardozo testified that at one point he met at the White House with Mrs. Clinton and deputy chief of staff and de facto campaign director Harold Ickes. He told them about the suspect contributions from Mr. Trie. Mrs. Clinton, he said, told him in turn that the fund should vet all contributions carefully. But apparently nothing was done, then or later, to vet the large amounts of money that Mr. Trie was simultaneously funneling through the Democratic National Committee to the campaign.

(2) An FBI agent testified that in the period of 1994-96 Mr. Trie received more than $900,000 in wire transfers from an Asian businessman, Ng Lap Seng. Mr. Ng, who is based in Macao, is said to be a sometime business partner of Mr. Trie’s. There appeared to be a correlation between the wire transfers and transfers of money by Mr. Trie in turn to the DNC.

Only after the hearings with regard to Mr. Ng were over did the White House disclose, in response to a longstanding committee inquiry, that Mr. Ng had visited the White House 12 times during the relevant period. Most of the visits, the White House said, were social calls on former White House aide Mark Middleton, an Arkansan who now has business dealings in Asia. Three others were described as White House tours, and once Mr. Ng attended a dinner for campaign contributors as Mr. Trie’s guest. The committee felt used by the White House, in that the news of the visits came only after the hearings had ended. Democratic senators joined Republicans in voting unanimously Friday to compel production of documents on time, by subpoena, in the future.

That’s just one small taste of the over effort by China to interfere in the 1996 election. This scandal had much more direct connections between the campaigns and illegal sources from a geopolitical foe of the US, but generated very little crusading spirit from the national news media, except to keep pushing for campaign finance reform.

The Senate’s worried about more than Russia and China, too. Iran is getting some mention, as well as North Korea:

The senators note that Russia isn’t the only potential threat to the integrity of US elections. The intelligence community has identified China, Iran and North Korea as other major actors who may seek to exploit vulnerabilities in the next US election cycle.

Unlike other legislation that focuses on protecting state and local election infrastructure, Van Hollen and Rubio’s bill is the first that would focus on punishing foreign actors by laying out severe consequences, staffers say.

It’s an inevitable outcome, and one that might be worth pursuing. There may be some complaints that it oversteps Congress’ jurisdiction in foreign affairs, intending to force the Trump administration into a more hostile position vis-a-vis Russia and others, but Congress does have a role to play in this realm, too. Given the circumstances, this should get enough support for serious consideration, especially with voters demanding action after the interference in the previous cycle.

The question will be whether Trump will sign the bill, but there won’t be much suspense involved. If it passes Congress, the White House won’t want to make that Trump’s first veto. It doesn’t change the status quo, but it does draw a line for any future action. That’s about the only action that can be taken now.