Coats, Nielsen, Wray: Of course we're taking election interference seriously

If so, they’re taking it more seriously than their boss. In a briefing today at the White House, DNI Dan Coats specifically announced that Donald Trump had tasked him to make a response to foreign interference in the upcoming midterms a “top priority,” and called the threat from Russia “pervasive.” Joining him at the dais were the two top officials in domestic counter-intelligence operations, FBI director Christopher Wray and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen:

“The intelligence community continues to be concerned about the threats to upcoming U.S. elections, both the midterms and the presidential election in 2020,” Coats said at a White House briefing with other intelligence agency leaders.

The illegal activity includes criminal efforts to suppress voting and provide illegal campaign financing, cyber attacks against voting infrastructure along with computer intrusions targeting elected officials and others, U.S. officials said.

“In regards to Russian involvement in the midterm elections, we continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Coats added. “We will continue to monitor and warn of any such efforts.”

The FBI has open investigations into election interference, FBI Director Christopher Wray said at the briefing.

The White House also had NSA director Paul Nakasone on hand to underscore the message:

This muscular presentation followed claims by Trump that the threat was overblown, and at least this time was calculated to boost Democrats. Coats told the press that the disruption campaign isn’t aimed at any one party or outcome, at least passively rebutting Trump:

So what prompted this sudden display of assertiveness? Frustration over a perceived lack of action from the White House on Russia prompted a bipartisan coalition of Senators to fill the gap. Earlier this morning, Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Robert Menendez unveiled a “sanctions bill from Hell” aimed at weakening support for Vladimir Putin by hitting his allies where it hurts most:

A bipartisan Senate contingent has introduced what Republican Lindsey Graham has called the “sanctions bill from hell,” targeting Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

The legislation, which was introduced just as senators were departing for a shortened August recess on Wednesday, targets Russian oligarchs and Putin family members for additional sanctions, and it would seek to require a two-thirds vote of the Senate for any attempt by the U.S. to abandon NATO.

“We must confront this challenge — not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Americans. Because ultimately, Putin’s true aim is to undermine all of us — our country, our freedom, and all that America stands for,” said Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona, who has joined in the Graham-led legislation.

Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, teamed up with Foreign Relations ranking Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey in leading the latest legislative push.

There won’t be any immediate action on the bill, as the Senate just left for a shortened two-week recess. They return on August 15th, but the House won’t come back into session until after Labor Day. The bill appears to be a warning shot across Donald Trump’s bow, expressing the consensus on Capitol Hill that Trump’s going too easy on Putin and not getting tough on Russia for its hostile actions against the US.

That’s a consensus borne of personal experience, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) told CNN:

Two leading senators are asserting that President Donald Trump has not focused on the clear threat the Kremlin poses in the 2018 elections, with one Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee contending that Russian hackers may have already targeted most — if not all — sitting US senators.

Ratcheting up the push for a more robust US response to Russian interference in the midterms and 2020 elections, Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are now slated to get a committee vote this month on a bipartisan bill aimed at shoring up the nation’s election system. But the two senators said their plan has run into hurdles for months — and say the Russian threat is real headed into the midterms.

In a joint interview as the primary season wraps up and with the November midterms less than 100 days away, the senators told CNN Wednesday that there is far more that has to be done — from the White House on down to the states.

“The intelligence community has been very active on this, the Department of Homeland Security has been active on this,” Lankford said. “While the President has been inconsistent in his tweets, and some of the messaging that he’s put on it, he’s the only one in the government that hasn’t been paying attention to this.”

It’s not all about Russia, or at least not directly. After statements by Trump during recent meetings with NATO, the Senate wants more control over the status of the alliance. The bill would require a two-thirds assent from the Senate before any president could act to remove the US from NATO, including our Article V obligations for common defense against an attack on any member. As ABC reports, the bill also provides for a much more robust cyberwarfare posture in relation to Russian efforts at disruption, as well as a demand for a new ruling from the State Department on whether Russia qualifies for the status of state sponsorship of terrorism:

This looks like a kitchen-sink approach to Russia sanctions. Given the mood of the country — and especially that of senators dealing with Russia-originated hacking attempts — there seems little doubt that this will pass if and when Mitch McConnell takes it up after the recess. It might pass so overwhelmingly that even a veto by Trump could end up getting overridden, and a veto itself might make Trump even more vulnerable to accusations of going soft on America’s enemies.

That may be the reason for introducing this just as the Senate goes into recess. It effectively gives Trump a couple of weeks to get tough himself and pre-empt this action by the Senate. It appears patience has just about run out across the aisle for a robust response from the White House, and both Democrats and Republicans want Trump to know it.