Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s testimony before two House committees Wednesday brought a new focus on foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, and highlighted what has — and has not — been done to prevent a recurrence in the next election less than 16 months away.
Mueller, who led the FBI in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, told both the House Judiciary and Intelligence panels that among the challenges to democracy he’s seen in his career, “the Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious.”
“Much more needs to be done in order to protect against this,” he told House Intelligence members.
Aside from millions allocated last year to bolster state election systems, measures aimed at criminalizing attempts to hack voting systems, authorizing more security funds, requiring paper ballots and increasing disclosure of political ads online have largely stalled.
A trio of Democratic senators attempted Wednesday evening to pass, by unanimous consent, multiple bills compelling campaigns to report foreign adversaries’ offers to assist them, as well as a measure relating to the Senate’s own cybersecurity.
“Unfortunately in the nearly three years since we’ve uncovered Russia’s attack on our democracy, this body has not held a single vote on standalone legislation to protect our elections,” said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Mississippi Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith objected to each of the unanimous consent requests, but did not explain why.
President Donald Trump, however, has at times called Russian interference a hoax, a charge Mueller rejected Wednesday. And some Republicans have resisted calls to address the issue by decrying election security efforts as federal overreach.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard C. Burr said Wednesday he did not think Congress needed to take further action to mitigate the threat of foreign interference. The North Carolina Republican pointed to the 2018 midterms, saying there was a “coordinated response” by “agencies and the private sector.”
But intelligence officials continue to warn that the threat of foreign interference persists. “The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
Mueller’s 448-page report on his investigation found that the election interference took several forms, including hackers tied to the Russian government gaining access to and releasing Democratic campaign officials’ emails, and social media campaigns to drive divisions between Americans.
Muller told the House Intelligence Committee that the Russian effort “wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.”
Congress allocated $380 million in a March 2018 government funding bill to help states improve their election infrastructure. The Election Assistance Commission, which oversees the country’s voting systems, awarded the grants to 50 states as well as the U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.
Two months ago, EAC officials asked Congress for more money, but efforts to boost election security funding have not moved forward.
Last week, the Senate passed by unanimous consent a measure to make hacking into voting systems a federal crime. In June, the Senate also passed a bill barring someone who is planning to interfere or suspected to have interfered in an American election from entering the country. Both measures have related bills in the House that are pending in committee.
Late last month, the House passed an election security measure that authorized an additional $600 million to states as well as $175 million every other year to bolster election infrastructure. The bill would require voting systems to use paper ballots as a backup to electronic systems, among other cybersecurity requirements.
All but one Republican in the House opposed the bill, and Republicans in both chambers have panned the legislation as the federal government imposing regulations on states, which run elections. The bill has not moved in the Senate.
Senators from both parties have also backed legislation to impose sanctions on foreign adversaries who interfere in U.S. elections. That bill has also not moved forward.