Democrats are uniting behind a simple message about Russian hacking during the 2016 election: Donald Trump doesn’t care.
Even as the president lashes out at the series of Russia-related probes besieging his administration, Democrats say Trump has yet to express public concern about the underlying issue with striking implications for America’s democracy — the digital interference campaign that upended last year’s presidential race.
The president missed a self-imposed 90-day deadline for developing a plan to “aggressively combat and stop cyberattacks,” stayed silent after Moscow-linked hackers went after the French election and publicly renewed his own skepticism about the Kremlin’s role in the digital theft of Democratic Party emails during the presidential race. Privately, the president questioned a senior NSA official about the truthfulness of the conclusion from 17 intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered with the election, according to The Wall Street Journal. On Capitol Hill, Trump and his team have declined to support a Republican-backed effort to hit Russia with greater penalties for its digital belligerence.
And while the White House received bipartisan praise for a cybersecurity executive order Trump signed in May, administration officials said the directive is aimed at broadly upgrading the government’s digital defenses, not thwarting future Russian election hacking.
Instead, Trump tapped a commission led by Vice President Mike Pence to investigate an issue that elections experts call vastly overblown — voter fraud, something the the president has baselessly alleged resulted in millions of illegal voters casting ballots for Hillary Clinton in November.
“There doesn’t seem to be a recognition of the seriousness of this threat” from Russia, said Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, during a hearing this past week. “We have to hear from the administration how they’re going to take that on.”
“There has been little sign of consequences so far from the Trump White House,” Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said on the Senate floor Wednesday night.
Democrats are coalescing around this narrative amid a series of rattling news reports that have offered the most concrete examples to-date of how vast and dynamic the alleged Russian digital ambush may have been, along with alarmed public comments from current and former U.S. intelligence leaders.
In the past two weeks, The Intercept published what it called a secret NSA document that described an aggressive, Moscow-backed hacking campaign to compromise state election officials, perhaps with the ultimate goal of meddling with votes. A subsequent Bloomberg report detailed Russian intrusions into 39 state voter databases and software systems, including one instance when hackers tried and failed to delete voter information.
Former FBI Director James Comey told lawmakers June 8 that the Russians had “hundreds” and perhaps more than 1,000 targets in their hacking cross hairs during the election. And, he warned, “They’ll be back.”
“There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever,” Comey said in his widely watched testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. And it was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government.”
But Trump appears not to share that alarm, Democrats say.
“The silence from the White House is deafening,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, one of the panels probing Russia’s election-year activities. “President Trump has yet to publicly express any concern or condemnation regarding these hostile acts by a principal adversary of the United States.”
Democrats also warn that such revelations are the merely a preview of what will eventually come out about the election-year hacking.
“I can’t say too much, but I can tell you this. … You have only seen the tip of the iceberg,” said Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has led the charge for states to harden their systems against hacking, during an interview with POLITICO.
Even some Republicans have spent the last week implicitly pressing the Trump administration to more forcefully rebuke of Russia as Congress debated a measure that would slap extra sanctions on Moscow.
"Russia is no friend of the United States,” said Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who sits on the Finance and Banking committees, in a statement. “The U.S. cannot stand by and allow Vladimir Putin and his cronies to bully Ukraine, and other neighboring nations, and meddle in free and fair elections across the globe."
The White House did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Comey piqued Democrats when he told lawmakers the president had never once asked him about Russian hacking, despite the numerous one-on-one conversations they had about the FBI’s investigation into the issue.
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, asked Comey if he agreed that Trump wasn’t “particularly interested” in the probes into Russian meddling. “There’s no doubt it’s a fair judgment,” Comey replied.
In multiple hearings since, Democrats — ranging from Warner to Reed to Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate from West Virginia — have picked up on these details.
During Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ closely watched testimony Tuesday, Manchin focused on the idea that Trump didn’t care about potential Russian interference going all the way back to the campaign.
“In the campaign, up until through the transition, was there ever any meeting where he showed any concern or consideration or just inquisitiveness of what the Russians were really doing and if they had really done it?” he asked.
“I don’t recall any such conversation,” replied Sessions, a Trump surrogate during the campaign who was the first high-profile senator to endorse the real estate mogul’s long-shot White House bid.
During a hearing the same day on the Pentagon’s fiscal 2018 budget, Reed pressed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis about whether Trump had “clearly laid out in some type of authoritative way, the mission to protect the country in this respect,” given Moscow’s apparent digital assault.
Mattis answered vaguely, offering to give more details in a closed session.
“We are in constant contact with the national security staff on this and we are engaged, not just in discussing the guidance, but in actual defensive measures,” he said.
But Democrats want more — stronger rhetoric, stricter economic penalties on Kremlin-linked cyber assailants and tighter campaign finance laws to expose any American candidates who are backed by Russian funding.
And they’re finding a willing partner in their colleagues across the aisle. Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate this past week hammered out a deal to attach a new Russia sanctions package onto an Iran sanctions bill. The full measure passed overwhelmingly on Thursday by a 98-2 vote.
The language would force the White House’s hand on Russia, codifying into law Obama-era penalties that the White House has considered lifting, while adding more sanctions against Russia’s defense and military-intelligence sectors.
Joining with Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described the package as “the first step in crafting a policy response to cyberattacks against our country” and called on the Pentagon and intelligence community to “develop a warfighting doctrine and strategy which recognizes cyberattacks.”
Yet in two Capitol Hill appearances this past week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declined to endorse the Russia deal, and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Banking Committee’s top Democrat, accused the White House of trying to block or dilute the bill.
Regardless, Democrats are already drawing the battle lines for more fights over Russia.
“We must do more,” Whitehouse said on the Senate floor after the measure passed, singling out Trump: “Now the question will shift to the White House.”
Whitehouse is the top Democrat on Judiciary’s Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee, which is conducting its own probe into Russia’s election-year interference. He has focused on Russia’s potential ability to finance preferred candidates in foreign elections, citing the major loans that a Russia-based bank gave to France’s far-right, nationalist party, the National Front.
“We should certainly push back by requiring political entities in this country to report their sources of funding,” Whitehouse said. “There are few safeguards in place to prevent foreign actors from funneling money into our elections through faceless shell companies.”
House Democrats are also fighting against Republican-led efforts to close the Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency created after the Bush v. Gore recount that offers voluntary assistance to states on running elections. The House Administration Committee earlier this year approved a bill that would shutter the EAC, with supporters arguing it has become outdated. Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer and Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Brady, the Administration panel’s top Democrat, renewed their party’s opposition to the closure following the Bloomberg report on the 39 states that Moscow apparently hit.
“Efforts to undermine or eliminate the EAC ought to be put to rest,” they said.
The White House has not publicly commented on the bill.
Many Democrats are nervously eyeing the rapidly approaching 2018 midterm elections. Top intelligence officials warn that Moscow will apply the knowledge it gained in 2016 to go even further in 2018.
“They’re going to come for whatever party they choose to try and work on behalf of, and they’re not devoted to either, in my experience,” Comey told lawmakers. “They’re just about their own advantage.”
And the window for the White House to take action is closing. Russian hackers started probing campaign and election-related systems well over a year before last year’s Election Day, intelligence officials have said.
“We are the greatest democracy in the world, and people can’t lose faith in the system,” McAuliffe said.