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Mueller departs with warning: Don’t forget Russia’s election meddling

Congress has been divided over how to address weaknesses in U.S. election system

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III reminded Americans on Wednesday that “there were multiple, systematic efforts” by Russia to interfere in U.S. elections. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III reminded Americans on Wednesday that “there were multiple, systematic efforts” by Russia to interfere in U.S. elections. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who stepped down from his position Wednesday, had a stark warning for Americans: pay attention to what Russia did to interfere in U.S. elections.

Most of the political wrangling and fallout over Mueller’s report has focused on whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice — the report, and Mueller on Wednesday, specifically said he did not exonerate the president on that score — and whether Congress should begin impeachment proceedings. Mueller himself pointed to an aspect of his office’s findings that hasn’t been challenged by either political party.

“I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments — that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election,” Mueller said Wednesday at the Justice Department, his first public remarks since taking over the nearly two-year investigation. “That allegation deserves the attention of every American.”

[House Democrats weigh next steps after Mueller announcement]

Yet, Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been divided for most of the past year on how to address the weaknesses in the U.S. election system that were exploited by Russia in 2016 and again in 2018, even as other countries attempt to copy Moscow’s playbook.

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Trump has repeatedly tried to cast doubt on Mueller’s findings, saying that the interference could have come from Russia, China or other countries. He has also said he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials that Moscow orchestrated an attack on U.S. election systems, contradicting the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies and Mueller’s findings.

For the most part, lawmakers in both parties agree that America’s voting machines and their support systems, including voter registration and vote-tallying computers, are outdated and lacking in basic security measures. But they are divided over how to fix the problem.

While Democrats have been pushing for as much as a $1 billion infusion of federal grants — in addition to the $380 million Congress appropriated in fiscal 2018 — to states to upgrade voting machines and train officials in cybersecurity measures, Republicans have balked at the proposal.

House vs. Senate

U.S. officials have said Russians attempted to break into voter registration systems in 21 states and managed to gain entry into seven of them, although no votes were changed.

When Democrats regained the House in January, they passed HR 1, a broad political overhaul bill that contained several election security provisions, including requirements that all states have paper ballots and grants to do so.

Facing Republican opposition in the Senate where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to bring up the bill in its entirety, Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has proposed a standalone election security bill that would mandate paper ballots, require U.S. intelligence agencies to assess threats to elections, and ask that states test their systems nine months before an election.

Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, the top Democrat on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and a 2020 presidential contender, has proposed matching legislation.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday renewed a call for the Senate to take up HR 1 to “protect our elections and secure our democracy.”

Virginia’s Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Congress should address several aspects of strengthening U.S. democracy “by passing legislation that enhances election security, increases social media transparency, and requires campaign officials to report any contact with foreign nationals attempting to coordinate with a campaign.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth tweeted her frustration Wednesday at the lack of progress in the Senate.

“Robert Mueller just made it crystal clear: Russia interfered in our elections in 2016 in a ‘systematic’ way. So why won’t [McConnell] let us vote on any election security bills to prevent foreign adversaries from doing it again?!” the Illinois Democrat wrote.

[This obscure 1973 memo kept Mueller from considering a Trump indictment]

Infrastructure weakness

Democrats and security experts tracking U.S. election infrastructure have pointed out gaping weaknesses.

“Forty states rely on electronic voting systems that are at least 10 years old,” Klobuchar said earlier this month at a hearing. “Twelve states have no or partial paper backup.”

“If something happens in one county in a close state or in one state, the entire presidential election could be up in the air,” Klobuchar added. “We then wouldn’t be able to prove what happened if we have no paper ballot backup.”

It remains unclear if the Senate will consider election security measures — McConnell has indicated a firm “no,” but at least one senior Republican said the chamber should debate such proposals.

South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a strong Trump supporter who has decried Democratic attempts to continue investigations into the president’s finances and obstruction of justice, said elections should be protected from interference, nonetheless.

“There was a systematic effort by Russia to disrupt our election,” Graham said in a statement Wednesday, echoing Mueller’s words. “It is now time to move on and to work together in a bipartisan fashion to harden our election infrastructure against future attempts by Russia and other bad actors.”

Other countries including Iran are potentially learning from the Russian playbook. On Tuesday, threat intelligence company FireEye published a report showing that Iranians posed as Americans on Twitter during the 2018 midterms and used fake accounts to inflame debate on topics including the government shutdown, judicial confirmations and U.S. foreign policy.

Congress has also stalled on passing legislation addressing the role of social media companies in enabling foreigners posing as Americans and trying to manipulate U.S. voters. While companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google have said they are policing their platforms better, they could be outpaced by foreign adversaries whose hacking skills are improving.

Facebook last week, for example, said it had removed 2.19 billion fake accounts, a significantly higher number than in the past because hackers are now using automated means to set up multiple accounts.

Social media abuse

Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation laid out how Russian operatives directly attacked election and campaign infrastructure but also how Russian entities used social media to mislead American voters.

His office indicted 26 Russians for interfering with U.S. elections and breaking into Democratic Party computers to obtain and release information that damaged Hillary Clinton. As Mueller said Wednesday, “The releases were designed and timed to interfere with our election and to damage a presidential candidate.”

In February 2018, Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies for interfering in the 2016 election. The indictment said 12 of those Russians worked for the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, an internet troll farm that employed hundreds of Russians who created fake social media accounts intended to mislead American voters. The company was funded and run by Putin ally Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who was also charged in the indictment. Prigozhin’s two other companies were also charged.

Russians operated social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Google, pretending to be Americans and posted inflammatory messages on race, police shootings and other divisive issues.

In July 2018, Mueller indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers for breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s email servers, stealing information, and leaking it through affiliated websites as well as through WikiLeaks. The Justice Department said the Russian military officers also hacked the website of a state election board and stole information on 500,000 voters.

While Mueller has stepped down from his position, Congress is continuing multiple probes stemming from information revealed during the special counsel’s investigation. Trump and the White House are fighting subpoenas to submit material or provide witnesses and many of them are being challenged in court.

The Senate and House Intelligence committees, for example, are continuing a counterintelligence investigation into Russian election interference. Last week, the House Intelligence panel said the Justice Department would hand over “twelve categories of counterintelligence and foreign intelligence materials.” These are materials Mueller collected from U.S. intelligence agencies about Russian activities during and before the elections.

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal,meanwhile, has said he expects to take his efforts to obtain the tax returns of Trump and eight Trump businesses to federal court, regardless of impeachment or any other proceedings.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig had declined to provide the documents after a pair of written requests from Neal in April. On May 10, Neal issued subpoenas to both officials demanding the documents be supplied to him by May 17. When the deadline arrived, Mnuchin said the documents would not be provided.

Neal has said he expects to turn to the courts to enforce his subpoenas rather than leveling contempt of Congress charges at Mnuchin and Rettig.

Dean DeChiaro and Doug Sword contributed to this report.

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