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The latest and final volume of the U.S. Senate intelligence committee’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election is a whopping 966 pages. We wouldn’t begrudge Americans for not reading the whole thing. We didn’t. But you don’t even have to get through the report’s introduction to come across another bipartisan reminder that yes, Russia tried to influence the 2016 election, and yes, they did it to benefit now-President Donald Trump.
“The Committee found that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian effort to hack computer networks and accounts affiliated with the Democratic Party and leak information damaging to Hillary Clinton and her campaign for president,” reads an early page of the report, which the committee voted on a bipartisan basis to accept. “Moscow’s intent was to harm the Clinton Campaign, tarnish an expected Clinton presidential administration, help the Trump Campaign after Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, and undermine the U.S. democratic process.”
This is now an established, apolitical fact. Previous volumes of the Senate report reached this conclusion. The Mueller report reached this conclusion. History will reach this conclusion. It’s past time for all American voters to recognize this reality, and to realize that foreign powers are trying to do the same thing in the 2020 election.
Unfortunately, President Trump has repeatedly denied or downplayed this reality and complicated efforts to better safeguard American democracy from continued meddling. He’s even seemed to invite it. American voters who continue to buy into his repeatedly debunked narrative run the risk of inviting it as well, not just from Russia, but from other adversarial nations that want to weaken our democratic foundations.
The need to recognize these efforts isn’t about rehashing the 2016 election outcome, or whether Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins this November; it’s about our country potentially losing out to external actors of chaos and confusion.
“Now, as we head towards the 2020 elections, China and Iran have joined Russia in attempts to disrupt our democracy, exacerbate societal divisions, and sow doubts about the legitimacy and integrity of our institutions, our electoral process and our republic,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement when the report was released last week. “We must do better in 2020. The Committee’s five reports detail the signs and symptoms of that interference and show us how to protect campaigns, state and local entities, our public discourse, and our democratic institutions.”
Both of Maine’s U.S. senators serve on the Intelligence Committee, and though they issued different statements, they did so in a joint press release. That’s important, because this issue and this realization must cut across party lines.
“Volume 5 of [the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence] investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election cycle is an exhaustive look into Moscow’s multifaceted effort to collect intelligence on the major parties and to undermine the public’s confidence in the electoral process,” Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, said in her statement. “According to the intelligence community, our government and political parties are much better prepared for foreign interference efforts than in 2016, but additional action must be taken to safeguard our elections, the cornerstone of our democracy.”
Collins went on to list several election security measures she has supported, including $425 million in election security funding; the Foreign Influence Reporting Elections (FIRE) Act; and the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act. What her statement didn’t mention is that Republican pressure stymied her efforts with Democratic Sen. Mark Warner to pass FIRE Act language in the yearly defense authorization bill, and that the DETER Act has similarly stalled because of pushback from Republican senators and leadership.
“Rather than disavowing this threat, President Trump and his inner circle have denied the unambiguous facts laid out in the report and, inexplicably, continue to take actions that support the aims and ambitions of Vladimir Putin,” Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said in his statement. “Rather than passing commonsense legislation to require political campaigns to report to the appropriate authorities contacts from foreign nationals, the President and his allies have blocked these efforts from being added to the [National Defense Authorization Act] and becoming law; indeed the President himself has expressed an openness to foreign interference in a news interview from the Oval Office.”
While King, like the Senate report, focused on Russia in his statement, this is now a threat posed by several adversarial nations. And it’s not all about helping Trump at the expense of his opponent. According to one of our country’s top intelligence officials, William Evanina, Russia is already working to try to undercut Biden while China and Iran have stepped up their own anti-Trump influence efforts.
As Rubio and Warner, the top Republican and Democrat respectively on the Intelligence Committee said in a statement thanking Evanina for his warning in early August, all Americans “should endeavor to prevent outside actors from being able to interfere in our elections, influence our politics, and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions.”
The presence of this interference should not be allowed to undermine confidence in our democratic process. That means acknowledging it and getting ahead of it now. If nearly half of America comes away from this election not only disappointed in the results, but believing those results are invalid, then American adversaries will be the true winners.
This type of foreign interference is less about trying to change vote counts, and more about spreading misinformation and shaping opinions. It’s less about manipulating voting machines, and more about manipulating Americans before they vote and making them doubt the entire process. In the absence of more significant action from Congress and the White House, it falls to everyday Americans to be conscious of these efforts, and to be skeptical consumers of information.