Editor’s Note: Fred Wertheimer is the founder and president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that seeks to promote government accountability and integrity. Former Ambassador Norman L. Eisen, a CNN contributor, is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and served as President Obama’s “Ethics Czar” from 2009-11. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.
The controversial draft report from the Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee, revealed this week, purports to conclude that Russia did not undertake active measures to help President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. In so doing, the report is directly at odds with the US intelligence community, which concluded just the opposite: that Russia did intervene to help elect Trump.
The Republican report, however, does concede that Russia meddled in the presidential election. Despite this almost universal view, Trump has continued to abdicate his duty to protect our country from the “information warfare” conducted against us by Russia in the 2016 election and that is expected to continue in the 2018 midterm elections. But there is legitimate concern that Russia may again use false and misleading online ads, fake news and phony websites, bots, stolen American identities and the like to disrupt selected races and favor particular candidates.
And if Trump does not take swift action to address this threat, then he will be acting as a major roadblock to the security of our nation and the legitimacy of our elections.
That said, last week Trump finally admitted that Russia had intervened in the 2016 presidential race – although he watered down that admission by stating, “Probably there was meddling from other countries.” And he still maintained his oft-repeated and unfounded claim that Russia’s intrusion in the 2016 election had no effect on the electoral outcome.
The President also said for the first time that he would prevent Russia from meddling in the 2018 midterm elections and that “We’re doing a very, very deep study and coming out with very strong suggestions on the 2018 election.”
However, the President offered no specifics about the study he mentioned and no information on the steps he was prepared to take to respond to Russian attacks on our democracy. If he follows through, it would be quite a departure for him. He has so far blocked the implementation of sanctions against Russia after they were overwhelmingly enacted by the House (419-3) and Senate (98-2).
The President’s sudden interest in this threat to our democracy came in the wake of startling testimony by Adm. Michael Rogers, head of the National Security Agency and US. Cyber Command, that the White House had not asked his agencies “to find ways to counter Moscow, or granted them new authorities to do so.”
It also came after a New York Times report that the State Department has not spent one penny of the $120 million it has been allocated since late 2016 to counter efforts by Russia or other foreign interests to interfere in our elections. The Times reported that after it began asking the State Department questions about this money, the department said that the Pentagon, where the money was being held, would be transferring $40 million for the effort. The Defense Department, however, said that more had to be worked out before the $40 million could be transferred to the State Department, and it remains unclear how this issue will ultimately be resolved.
So, is Trump’s new commitment heartfelt, or merely lip service in the wake of these embarrassments? We are skeptical, in part because Trump made 2,140 false or misleading claims in his first 365 days in office, an average of 5.9 false claims a day, according to a Washington Post study. We question whether the President will offer or undertake anything real.
To serve as a benchmark, let’s look at what a president would do if he actually cared about protecting our country against Russia or another foreign power sabotaging our elections.
Here are six steps that we believe would work:
1. A president would issue a government-wide directive instructing the administration to prioritize the prevention of future attacks on our elections by Russia or other foreign or hostile interests. He would direct the national security adviser to deal with conflicts, bureaucratic issues and any other problems in meeting this challenge. Such a leader would establish a process in the government for obtaining and incorporating best practices undertaken by our allies to prevent Russian interference in their elections.
2. He would hold a public summit to explore ways to respond to Russia. This summit would include the CEOs of Facebook,Twitter and Google. They would be tasked with explaining to the American people how they were used by the Russians in the 2016 elections, the specific steps they are taking to prevent this at Russian or other hands in future elections, and how they think those steps will be effective. These companies have an indispensable role to play in solving these problems.
3. A president would impose stiff sanctions on Russia without loopholes. The sanctions would be periodically increased until it was clear the Russians had stopped attacking our democracy. He would also make efforts to develop other forms of punishment – including proportional cyber retaliation – for foreign or hostile interests that were interfering in our elections.
4. He would submit a package of legislative solutions and call on Congress to enact the solutions as a top priority. The solutions would include proposals to:
– Increase disclosure in a timely and effective manner for campaign-related Internet ads;
– Ban foreign interests from running broadcast and Internet ads that mention candidates;
– Provide national assistance to the states to strengthen security for their voter registration and election systems;
– Ensure stiff sanctions are applied to any foreign interest that attempts to interfere with our elections.
5. He would submit an emergency funding request to Congress and demand prompt action. The request would cover the substantial resources necessary to assist the states in improving their security and to finance expanded efforts by the intelligence agencies, the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department to prevent interference in our elections by Russia or any other foreign interest.
6. His administration would provide periodic reports to the country on the progress being made to stop Russia or any other foreign interest from interfering in our elections.
Get our free weekly newsletter
None of this has yet been done by Trump. Notwithstanding his recent and grudging admission of Russian intrusion, he still likes to make believe that the Russian investigation is a “witch hunt,” and that anything Russia may have done did not affect any votes.
He has so far failed to protect our democracy, and is not fulfilling the presidential oath of office he took to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States,” and to the best of his ability “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
We should all be watching to see if he reverses that by meeting the six criteria we have laid out in the plan he has announced will be forthcoming.