WASHINGTON — Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are calling on the Trump administration to vastly expand the U.S. response to Russian interference in elections, with increased sanctions and a new inter-agency body to coordinate government policies.
In a 200-page report commissioned by Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and released Wednesday, Democratic committee staff describe efforts by Russia to influence elections throughout Europe for years and say many of those countries have made aggressive moves to push back.
With months to go before this year’s midterm elections, the Democrats contend that Washington does not yet have a coherent plan to confront Russian cyber campaigns aimed at disrupting U.S. democracy. Cardin — a longtime critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin — said it was time to develop one.
“This threat existed long before President Trump took office,” he said in a statement. “And unless he takes action now, it will continue long after his administration.”
Democrats don’t dwell in the report on the 2016 presidential election. They focus instead on Russian efforts abroad, such as in Britain’s 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union and last year’s French presidential elections. They cover similar campaigns in Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere.
Committee aides said Republicans were invited to take part in the report — the culmination of a yearlong effort — but chose not to. A spokesman for Sen. Bob Corker, the committee’s chairman and also a vocal critic of Putin, said the Tennessee Republican appreciated that Cardin notified him of the effort.
“Through a series of public hearings and classified briefings, the committee has conducted its oversight responsibilities related to Russia throughout Senator Corker’s tenure as chairman,” the spokesman, Micah Johnson, said in a statement. “While we will review the report in its entirety, including the recommendations, no further full committee activity is planned at this time.”
Corker and Cardin, the top Democrat on the committee, worked together last year on a Russian sanctions bill Trump signed in August.
While the report provides a detailed account of Russian efforts elsewhere, it is being released in the context of multiple investigations probing connections between Moscow and the Trump campaign last year.
Trump has cast aside concerns about Russia as an effort to undermine his own election victory and has repeatedly denied that his campaign colluded with Russia.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the report. It was not clear whether officials in the Trump administration were given a chance to review it before its release.
U.S. intelligence agencies have said they have “high confidence” that the Kremlin orchestrated an influence campaign in the U.S. election. That effort, they said in late 2016, included hacking into email accounts of the Democratic Party. Social media companies including Facebook and Twitter have turned over thousands of advertisements — some purchased in rubles — that have been linked to Russian troll farms.
Hundreds of those ads were targeted at Facebook users in Maryland — a heavily Democratic state that was not in play during the general election. At least one of those ads, released last year by the House Intelligence Committee, depicted Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man who died in police custody in 2015.
Committee Democrats offered more than 30 recommendations, many based on actions by European nations, they said would mitigate the impact from future influence campaigns. Those include an “inter-agency fusion cell” that would coordinate Washington’s response, a more robust effort to freeze Kremlin-linked “dirty money” abroad and a coordinated effort with NATO to respond to allies enduring cyber attacks.
“Monitoring and countering propaganda alone will never be sufficient,” the report’s authors write.
Cardin, who is up for reelection this year, was a vocal critic of the Putin government long before Trump announced his campaign for president. He championed legislation approved by Congress in 2012 that imposed tougher sanctions on Russia over human rights concerns, despite a cool response to that idea from the Obama administration.