The Senate Intelligence Committee released the third installment of its five-part report on Russian interference in the 2016 election this week, focused on the failures of the Obama administration. It almost entirely papered over the part that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took in threatening all-out political war if the administration went public with the fact that Russia was interfering to help Donald Trump. In doing so, the committee fails to combat the biggest threat to the integrity of the 2020 election: political obstruction to safeguarding systems against Russian or other adversaries’ interference.
It’s been well-documented that Trump has personally intervened to water down intelligence assessments of Russia’s actions in 2016. Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats resigned over Trump’s ongoing efforts to make him say that there had been no connection between Trump and Russia, and to minimize Russia’s stoking of conspiracy theories and exploiting polarization on social media. With Trump now feeling entirely unfettered by what he sees as total exoneration, we have to question if he’ll even allow his intelligence community to stay on the job of securing the election. Watching National Security Council director Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman being tossed out of the White House Friday underlines that threat.
One senator on the committee, Oregon’s Ron Wyden, sees that very clearly. In an addendum to the report, he wrote, “As the report describes, the Obama Administration believed that any public statements about Russian interference it might make would be seen as partisan, a concern that would be mitigated if members of Congress were to publicly support the available intelligence.” Then he concluded, “I believe that warning the public about a foreign influence campaign should not depend on the support of both parties, particularly when one of the parties stands to gain politically from that campaign. But that is how the Obama Administration felt.”
The Obama administration erred. President Obama and team probably believed, like the rest of us, that Hillary Clinton would win, and the danger of injecting more partisan poison into the mix—what Mitch McConnell was promising he would do—would only make the election more fraught and ugly. That was a miscalculation. It’s one that Democrats can’t afford again.
There aren’t many checks on Trump. Certainly, Mitch McConnell won’t be one. So Senate Democrats and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi need to expose the partisan threat that Trump and McConnell and Republicans pose at every level. It’s a difficult line to walk, to make sure that the public understands that the Republican Party is willing to sacrifice our election system to keep winning, and at the same time not discourage voters. But they’re mostly smart people. They can figure to how to do it. Blowing this whistle loudly and constantly is the key.