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Senate Report Outlines Playbook to Prevent Future Russian Election Meddling

Conspicuously absent from the report, however, is Republican buy-in.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, in March 2014. (Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, in March 2014. (Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Despite President Donald Trump’s repeated questioning of claims that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections, top Democratic lawmakers are urging immediate steps to prevent Kremlin-directed meddling from happening again.

On Wednesday, Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a massive report detailing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pattern of undermining the United States and its allies’ democratic systems and calling for the country to take new steps to prevent and deter future election meddling.

No Republicans signed on to or worked on the report, which was commissioned by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the committee’s ranking member. Several congressional staffers told Foreign Policy that while most Republican and Democratic lawmakers are united against Putin, this illustrates the steep partisan divide on the probes into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia. (The only criminal referral to come out of three congressional investigations is for the author of the infamous Steele dossier, which alleges extensive Trump ties to Russia.) Other staffers say some Republican senators weren’t given enough advance notice of the report to decide whether to contribute.

The lack of bipartisan support for the report is disappointing, said Daniel Fried, a former senior career State Department official and Russia expert who consulted on portions of the report. “It’s unfortunate because a lot of those ideas are perfectly consistent with where foreign-policy and national security Republicans are,” he said. “They’re actually trying to unpack the problem, start to separate it from domestic politics, and come up with policy-level answers, which I think is right and needed.”

The report — titled “Putin’s Asymmetrical Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security” — slams Trump for being “negligent” in recognizing and responding to Putin’s election interference. The report does not delve into the details of the 2016 U.S. elections but outlines the ways in which Russia has attempted to interfere in other countries’ politics over the past two decades, from the Baltics to Ukraine to the Balkans, and makes recommendations for the United States to act with an eye to the 2018 and 2020 elections.

Among more than three dozen recommendations, the report calls for Trump to establish an interagency “fusion cell” to tackle Russian influence operations to forge better cooperation among the State Department, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, intelligence community, and other agencies. The entity would be modeled after the National Counterterrorism Center, an interagency body stood up in the wake of 9/11. Fried applauded the idea but said it would need sufficient interagency buy-in and a very senior official at the helm to be effective.

The report also recommends creating a new sanctions designation for “state hybrid threat actors,” akin to the current “state sponsors of terrorism” list. The new designation would slap escalatory sanctions on any country that subverts democratic institutions or engages in other forms of so-called hybrid warfare.

“This threat existed long before President Trump took office, and unless he takes action now, it will continue long after his administration,” Cardin said in a statement Wednesday. “While President Trump stands practically idle, Mr. Putin continues to refine his asymmetric arsenal.”

Those involved in the report argue that if Washington doesn’t take new steps to patch its vulnerabilities laid bare in the last presidential election, Russia could repeat its success in meddling in the 2018 and 2020 elections. They also fear U.S. allies in NATO and the European Union remain susceptible to Russian meddling, citing the Kremlin’s murky role in the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum, Catalonia’s drive for independence from Spain, and concerns over upcoming elections in Italy this March.

The report, a year in the making, is meant to ratchet up pressure on Trump, who has repeatedly skirted questions about Russia’s election meddling. It also aims to spark action from Republican lawmakers.

While no Republicans on the committee contributed to the report, some, including Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), have played key roles in expanding sanctions against Russia for election meddling last year. “Sen. Corker appreciates the fact that Sen. Cardin previously notified him that his staff was in the process of developing a minority report,” Micah Johnson, a spokesman for Corker, told FP. “While we will review the report in its entirety, including the recommendations, no further full committee activity is planned at this time.”

Democratic staffers insist that many of the report’s specific recommendations are likely to have Republican support. The offices of several other Republicans on the committee did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Daniel Vajdich, a Republican foreign-policy expert and former staffer for Corker on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that didn’t mean Republicans weren’t hawkish on Russia. “Corker is more interested in legislating and may not see as much value in these sorts of initiatives, writing reports,” he said.

Vajdich also said other Republicans may have been reluctant to sign on to such a report in case it became a political football.

Despite the litany of claims by Trump that Russian election interference and his campaign’s coordination with Russia were a hoax or overhyped, prominent Republican lawmakers have remained hawkish on Russia. In July 2017, the Senate passed sweeping new sanctions against Russia in a 98-2 vote. And prominent Republican hawks, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Corker, have in the past chided the Trump administration for missing key sanctions deadlines against Russia.

Democratic Senate staffers who worked on the report say they don’t expect to change Trump’s mind but hope the report can be a rallying cause for the rest of the executive branch and key Republican lawmakers.

“The president is who he is,” said one senior Democratic congressional staffer, “and we don’t have illusions about changing the president.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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