Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell does not shame easily. Ask anyone — including Jon Stewart, the former Comedy Network star who has found a second life as an impassioned advocate for the victims of the 9/11 attacks. His wilting denunciation of Congress and Senator McConnell, in particular, became must-watch viewing on a wide array of social media platforms last week. But has it softened the Republican leader’s heart? Hard to say. Mr. McConnell recently expressed support for fully funding the Victims Compensation Fund as Mr. Stewart has sought, but legislation to do so remains stalled in the Senate.
Still, if the embarrassment Mr. Stewart heaped on the majority leader actually did the job, perhaps the former “Daily Show” host can be recruited to express similar outrage that Congress has so far done so little to protect the upcoming 2020 election from foreign interference. Maryland’s own Rep. John Sarbanes is looking to rectify that situation shortly. He’s at the vanguard of the effort by House Democrats to strengthen election security — and address many of the criticisms contained in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report that have been echoed by U.S. intelligence agencies. There’s simply no question that Russian agents attempted to interfere in the 2016 election and are expected to be at it again next year.
What would a better protected election look like? Well, for starters, Congress can simply clarify the obligation of a candidate and his or her campaign staff to report contacts with foreign nationals seeking to interfere with a presidential election. Existing law is clearly not adequate in this area. Just ask President Donald Trump whose response to an interviewer’s question about whether he would accept such foreign help without alerting the FBI — um, shall we say, evolved — over the last week. Americans can now be confident that their president would talk to someone about something including, maybe, possibly, the FBI, should the opportunity arise. You get the idea.
Here’s a simple remedy. Make sure federal law specifies that offering opposition research or polling data or hacked emails or whatever are clearly defined as something of monetary value. It’s already against the law for a foreign agent to give money to a presidential campaign, so why not classify such valuable information as an in-kind contribution? Had the law already provided for that, Mr. Mueller would likely have pressed charges against Donald Trump Jr. for the infamous Trump Tower meeting. It doesn’t, so he didn’t.
But that’s just the beginning. Representative Sarbanes is also set to re-introduce the election security provisions contained in H.R. 1, the omnibus bill the House passed early in its term that covers ethics and campaign finance as well. Republicans used to believe in secure elections. Remember paper ballots? Well, after initially expressing some interest in election security, it appears House Republicans aren’t exactly on board with the Sarbanes reforms. That’s a shame, but it won’t stop the House from taking action — possibly before the August recess. But that leaves us with Mr. McConnell.
The Senate majority leader has been sitting on H.R. 1 since it passed the House in March. Fine. Perhaps he can argue against campaign finance reform or congressional ethics as representing some kind socialism or whatever bugaboo he cares to invent. But by breaking out the election security components, Mr. Sarbanes will be giving the senator a clear choice — either protect democracy or don’t. There shouldn’t be partisanship in matters of shoring up election systems, giving grants to states to purchase more reliable, hack-resistant equipment or improving the standards of election machine vendors. Either Congress steps up and defends the nation against foreign interference in the 2020 election or it does not and accepts the terrible consequences of that inaction.
Will Senator McConnell really want to find out what history will have to say about those who chose to ignore the well established risk of election hacking by foreign intelligence agencies? If Mr. McConnell found Mr. Stewart and the 9/11 victims pesky, he hasn’t seen anything yet. The American people won’t look kindly on those who provided the means for hostile foreign governments to manipulate U.S. presidential election results. Perhaps that’s because they believe in democracy. Does the Senate majority leader?
Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.