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What are the Russians Up To?

There are hints that Russia’s meddling did not end with Trump’s election.

Earlier this week I was on an American Constitution Society panel entitled, “Firewalling Democracy.” The discussion was about how to protect elections from foreign meddling. Among the panelists was Laura Rosenberger who worked for the National Security Council and the State Dept. in the Obama Administration. She is now director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. After I cited former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony last June that Russia “will be back” for the 2018 election, Rosenberger made the chilling point that they never really left.

“Our European partners and allies have been experiencing a variety of Russia’s tactics aimed at undermining their democratic institutions. . .for well over a decade, Rosenberger said. “Some of what Russia is doing today is actually a dust-off of its Cold War active measures playbook that it has hypercharged with cyber-tools and social media and other forms of information technology.”

The next day the Senate Intelligence Committee released a brief interim report on their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. It contained this unsettling fact:  

In at least six states, the Russian-affiliated cyber actors went beyond scanning and conducted malicious access attempts on voting-related websites. In a small number of states, Russian-affiliated cyber actors were able to gain access to restricted elements of election infrastructure. In a small number of states, these cyber actors were in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter registration data; however, they did not appear to be in a position to manipulate individual votes or aggregate vote totals.

And this troubling nugget: “It is possible that more states were attacked, but the activity was not detected.”

The report also backed a reform long advocated by the Brennan Center and which was part of my talk: states must replace with their obsolete purely electronic voting machines with those that leave a paper trail. Among other things, paper records allow for election audits. “States should rapidly replace outdated and vulnerable voting systems,” the report noted.  “At a minimum, any machine purchased going forward should have a voter-verified paper trail and no WiFi capability.”

I hope that all states will take advantage of the $380 million Congress set aside for the Election Assistance Commission to fund security improvements so that the 2020 presidential election is more secure than the last one. I also hope state legislatures will follow the lead of Virginia, which got rid of its paperless ballot before the 2017 election, and invest state resources to supplement the federal funds.

Voting security is necessary for a healthy and resilient democracy. But the role of money is politics also needs examination, specifically whether foreign funds are infecting the process. There may be a debate over various aspects of campaign finance, but the ban on foreign nationals spending in U.S. elections is clear and absolute. However, there are questions about whether foreign money played any role in Trump’s 2016 campaign or his current re-election effort.   

For instance, Michael Cohen, inevitably described as Trump’s “personal lawyer,” reportedly received $500,000 from an American investment firm linked to the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. The payments allegedly began after the inauguration in January and ended in August.  The investment firm, Columbus Nova, says it is “100% owned by Americans” and that hiring Cohen was completely above board. He was retained “as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments,” Columbus Nova maintains.

Ultimately, Cohen’s ties to Vekelsberg, if any, will be resolved by the investigation underway by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. That case may be proceeding more rapidly than some believe; a former federal judge known for her efficiency, Barbara Jones, has been appointed a special master to review documents the FBI seized from Cohen’s home and office last month. (CNN has reported Vekselberg has been questioned by investigators working for Special Counsel Robert Mueller.)

Another red flag was raised by the Dallas Morning News in December when it reported that billionaire Len Blavatnik, Vekselberg’s longtime business partner and a billionaire in his own right, was one of the largest donors to GOP PACs in the last election cycle, ponying up $6.35 million. Blavatnik was born in Russia, emigrated to the U.S., and returned to his homeland in the late 1980’s when the Soviet Union began to collapse. He is a dual U.S.-U.K. national. Blavatnik’s donations are perfectly legal so long as his giving was not directed by a foreign national, such as Vekelsberg.

Presumably, the answer to what Russians were and are up to will be answered by a combination of the of the work of Robert Mueller, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney, and to the extent it is possible, the bipartisan findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee. In the end though, there’s at least one body that has not covered itself in glory in pursuing this story. At this point it sure looks like the March report from the House Intelligence Committee, which devoted more space to blaming the Obama administration than Russia, is woefully incomplete. 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Picture: Thinkstock)

Purchasing Power: The Conversation

This post is part of the special series designed to provide well-informed commentary, fresh questions, and new answers about the facts of money in politics. Dive in to 'Purchasing Power: The Conversation’ here. 

The views expressed by blog contributors are the authors’ own and not necessarily the views of the Brennan Center.