Shadow Government

Republicans Are AWOL on Russian Election Meddling

The GOP's absence from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's report on Russian interference is sad and abnormal.

Sen. Bob Corker (left) and Sen. Ben Cardin prepare to listen to testimony at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the U.S.-Russia relationship, on Feb. 9, 2017. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Sen. Bob Corker (left) and Sen. Ben Cardin prepare to listen to testimony at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the U.S.-Russia relationship, on Feb. 9, 2017. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Senate Democrats have produced a factual report about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to undermine democracy. Everyone should read it.

On Wednesday morning, Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a report to his colleagues entitled “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security.” This so-called minority staff report (because it was authored by the staff working for the Democratic minority on the committee) is an impressive piece of work. In more than 200 pages, it lays out Putin’s tactics over nearly two decades — and includes a host of specific practical recommendations for a U.S. response.

The timing of the report — after what must have been months of research and writing — is serendipitous: It comes just a day after Sen. Dianne Feinstein released the transcript of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s interview last summer with Glenn Simpson, the founder of political research firm Fusion GPS. The transcript blew holes in some of the Republican attempts to raise doubts about the so-called Steele dossier (a report by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, first made public by BuzzFeed, alleging that the Russian government “had both compromised and colluded with President-elect Donald Trump,” as Ben Smith, the site’s editor in chief, put it), especially because it recounted how the document, when it was first shared with the FBI, corroborated information the bureau had already obtained, including from an unnamed source within the Trump organization. In addition to undermining Republican arguments about the dossier, the transcript of Simpson’s interview also, of course, raised questions about the loyalties of Republicans who are apparently more concerned with offering political protection to the president than with defending the United States against a threat about which it still knows and understands too little.

The report does not delve in detail into the Russian intervention in the U.S. election. Its strength lies rather in the way that it provides a context for understanding that aggressive action as part of a broader, decades-long effort by Putin to undermine democratic institutions at home, in Europe, and in the United States, and thereby to challenge the rules-based order that found its genesis (and still has its foundation) in the trans-Atlantic alliance between the United States, Canada, and their democratic allies and partners in Europe. The report makes clear that Russia’s attempts to undermine democracy are an ongoing threat, and one that demands a robust U.S. response. It should be required reading for every member of Congress — and indeed for all Americans who want to better understand the threat that Russia poses, and what can be done about it.

The development of a comprehensive strategy to counter Russian threats to democracy in North America and in Europe is a central recommendation of the report, and it offers an array of actions that could fit within such a strategy. The recommendations are thoughtful and deserve close consideration by the administration and members of Congress. Some will require further consideration and troubleshooting. For example, the disclosure of intelligence about the billions of dollars Putin has stolen through corruption will need to take account of protection of sources and methods, and the idea of a treaty, modeled on arms control treaties, to regulate peacetime use of cyber methods among countries needs to take into account the challenges associated with attribution of cyberattacks. But many of the recommendations are straightforward and should be implemented immediately. (Among these is a congressionally authorized independent commission to examine Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election.)

One of the striking aspects of this report is its factual, well-documented execution and sober tone. This is not a political screed. It does state that President Donald Trump has not acknowledged the extent of the threat posed by Russia and has yet to take comprehensive action in response to that threat — this is objectively true. But the focus of the report is clearly on Putin’s actions, the efforts so far to mitigate their effects, and opportunities to strengthen the U.S. approach. Cardin, his Democratic colleagues, and the committee’s minority staff clearly took an approach aimed at opening the possibility for their Republican colleagues to sign on.

So that raises the question: Why is it a minority report? Cardin’s cover letter rightly recalls how in the wake of Pearl Harbor and September 11, presidents led bipartisan efforts to defend the United States against a clear and present danger. The response to Pearl Harbor wasn’t a Democratic response. The response to September 11 wasn’t a Republican response. American citizens depend on their elected representatives to put partisanship aside and work together to address threats to the country’s democratic project. The fact that Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee didn’t join this report isn’t just enormously sad — it’s abnormal. Citizens in Tennessee (Sen. Bob Corker), Idaho (Sen. James Risch), Florida (Sen. Marco Rubio), Wisconsin (Sen. Ron Johnson), Arizona (Sen. Jeff Flake), Colorado (Sen. Cory Gardner), Indiana (Sen. Todd Young), Wyoming (Sen. John Barrasso), Georgia (Sen. Johnny Isakson), Ohio (Sen. Rob Portman), and Kentucky (Sen. Rand Paul) should ask their senators: Why did you not sign on? Do you deny the threat posed by Russia to our democracy and to democracy in Europe? If not, what is your plan to address this threat? Where is the majority report?

Corker, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, should not only read the report, he should hold a hearing to discuss its recommendations and then throw his support behind any legislation that can accelerate their implementation.

Daniel Baer is diplomat in residence at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. He previously served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 2009 to 2013. Baer was an assistant professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, a faculty fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, and a project leader at the Boston Consulting Group. @danbbaer

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