Robert Mueller’s upcoming testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees later tomorrow feels slightly out of sequence. We’ve already read the former special counsel’s report. We heard the president’s rebuttal before the investigation was even completed. And for two years before that, there were nonstop revelations that have since lost the power to shock. Since 2016, the Trump-Russia scandal continues to unfold in reverse.
Still, it will be bracing to hear Mueller himself read his report’s conclusion: “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” That statement still astounds. If we were learning this for the first time, we’d be stunned and furious. We’d demand action.
The Mueller hearing will be a dud if it doesn’t lead to a renewed push to prevent foreign interference in our elections. In fact, there are specific reforms already in the works that would prevent Vladimir Putin from tilting the outcome of the 2020 election. These protections are embodied in the sweeping anti-corruption bill, H.R. 1 or the For the People Act, which actually passed the House of Representatives in March.
My Brennan Center colleagues detailed them all in this recent analysis. Let me mention just a few:
Start with the basics. Mueller’s report described how Russian activities in 2016 went far beyond the theft of emails from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Russian hackers broke into voter registration databases and computer software vendors’ systems. While there’s no evidence they succeeded in infiltrating voting machines, there are preemptive steps that we can take to fortify our election infrastructure. Requiring that all voting machines have an auditable paper backup, for example, would make it possible to detect fraud and conduct recounts. Last year, Congress allocated nearly $400 million for states and counties to buy new voting machines and bolster cybersecurity measures, but more is needed.
There is also the still-shocking fact that an entire office building in St. Petersburg, Russia, crowded with hackers, served as the headquarters for a multimillion-dollar dark money operation aimed at helping Donald Trump win the presidency. They fabricated rumors and bought ads — all anonymously. Of course, Putin’s clever trolls simply took advantage of our loophole-plagued campaign finance laws, under which big spenders can conceal their identity. Thank Citizens United and the Wild-West deregulation it fostered for some of the risk.
Here, too, H.R. 1 would prevent much of this abuse from happening again. It would require all campaign ads to reveal who paid for them, including ads distributed online. It would tighten rules on foreign donors. And it would do something that is far more important than it sounds: significantly strengthen the Federal Election Commission. That’s the agency that is charged with enforcing campaign finance laws. It was designed by Congress to fail, and by now it’s paralyzed and polarized, with Republican commissioners effectively vetoing any action by the agency. H.R. 1 would give significant new power to the agency’s professional staff to initiate investigations and push enforcement. That would make a big difference.
Finally, there’s the way that Putin worked to suppress the vote. His minions focused their disinformation efforts on the African American community, and even spread lies about when and where people could vote. Alarmingly, some of this chicanery is not illegal under federal law. H.R. 1 would bar deceptive practices that aim to keep people from voting.
That’s only a partial list.
After Watergate, Congress responded with a wave of reforms that improved government and politics for a generation: campaign finance laws, the Ethics in Government Act, the War Powers Act, and the congressional budget process were all born out of the abuses of the Nixon era.
Significantly, many of those reforms had bipartisan support. Some of the needed changes in response to Russian interference also have backing from Republicans as well as Democrats. So, it might make sense to break out some of those proposals, especially the ones dealing with election security, from the full package of Democrat-authored changes.
For two years, too many people have been waiting for Mueller to provide a satisfying ending to this increasingly implausible drama. In classical theater, this type of plot device was known as a deus ex machina, where a god would descend from Mount Olympus and resolve a conflict.
Spoiler alert: Mueller won’t do that.
But these hearings can be a significant moment now that the real responsibility in all of our hands. Let’s use the Mueller report and testimony to spur momentum for reform. If we don’t, we’d better line up witnesses for the next wave of hearings — the ones to describe how foreign governments, dark money, and spies-as-vote-suppressors influenced the 2020 election.
(Image: BCJ/Getty/Alex Wong/shutterstock)