President Donald Trump’s inauguration did not diminish America’s need to get to the bottom of Russian involvement in his election – in fact, the stakes grow higher by the day.
Our 17 U.S. intelligence agencies concluded with a high degree of certainty that the Russian government was responsible for hacks into private email systems and several states’ voter registration systems – as well as a coordinated “fake news” operation – to bolster the president’s campaign. Since then, reports of active U.S. investigations into whether four of Trump’s associates, including National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, communicated and coordinated with the Russian government have deepened and broadened the cause for concern.
Yet the new president essentially now asks America a question that the Marx Brothers meant as a joke: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”
We cannot just shrug and turn away from this – and he shouldn’t want to, either.
An adversarial foreign power launched an unprecedented electronic attack on the very foundation of our democracy, committing cybercrimes by stealing and selectively releasing private information to help install a president of the United States it deemed sympathetic to its agenda. Ignoring such an attack invites more such interference in future elections and signals our national deference to anyone possessing the technological means to meddle.
Worse, leaving the situation unaddressed means anything the Trump administration now does – every nomination or appointment, every policy put forth, every sanction lifted or imposed, every word the president utters – is viewed through a lens of doubtful motive.
No president should want this kind of cloud hanging over the White House. Yet President Trump has refused to take even the most basic steps – releasing his tax returns and making his overseas business dealings transparent – to begin dispelling this cloud. His silence grows more deafening by the day.
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Congressional investigations are under way, as they should be. But already we hear reports of jurisdictional squabbles and foot-dragging, and any congressional finding inevitably will be subject to a perception of partisan motivation. It grows clearer every day that restoring faith and trust in our institutions requires review and recommendations by an entity operating outside of those institutions.
That’s why I and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, introduced the Protecting Our Democracy Act, or H.R. 356. Our bill would create a 12-member, bipartisan and independent commission empowered to interview witnesses, obtain documents, issue subpoenas, and receive public testimony in examining the Russian government’s attempts to use electronic means to influence, interfere, or sow distrust in last year’s U.S. elections. The commission, which also would examine similar efforts by any other foreign governments or entities, would issue a final report including recommendations for future security protections to Congress and the President.
Each of four Republican and Democratic Senate and House leaders would appoint three commission members, and the commission would then choose a chair and vice chair of different parties. But this commission would include neither members of Congress nor federal employees. Instead, it would consist of prominent U.S. citizens with national recognition and significant depth of experience in governmental service, law enforcement, armed services, law, public administration, intelligence gathering, foreign affairs, cybersecurity, and federal elections.
These respected experts would devote themselves full-time to their fact-based investigation, a commitment Congress simply cannot make.
When first we offered the bill in December, we urged all of our House colleagues to put country before party and join us. Upon the bill’s reintroduction in January, every House Democrat became a cosponsor. We continue our efforts to bring our Republican colleagues aboard - this is a sincere and crucial service to our nation, not a messaging bill.
Senate Democrats have introduced similar legislation. And the idea is supported by respected leaders outside of Congress: A bipartisan group of 15 prominent intelligence, foreign-policy and homeland security experts issued a statement on January 4 urging the commission’s creation, including Democrats former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; and former 9/11 Commission vice-chairman and Congressman Lee Hamilton; and Republicans Eliot A. Cohen, former State Department counselor; David Kramer, former assistant secretary of state; and Paul Rosenzweig, former deputy assistant secretary of Homeland Security.
“No American should tolerate these types of intrusions into the bedrock of our democracy. Our elections should always belong to us. When foreign interference occurs, both major political parties should unite and declare they will not tolerate it,” they wrote. “This inquiry should occur immediately. Anything less than a swift investigation will leave us vulnerable to another attack and, possibly worse, permit and normalize future interference.”
Critics claim the intelligence community’s conclusions negate the need for further investigation. Yet the evidence supporting those conclusions remains classified – inviting public doubt of its existence, provenance and veracity – and the nation still needs practical recommendations for how to ensure that this sort of interference never happens again.
And let us not engage in revisionist history by claiming that Russia’s government is a friend and partner, rather than a growing threat to world peace.
President Vladimir Putin, whom evidence shows personally directed his government’s efforts to boost then-candidate Trump’s chances, has created a brutal authoritarian atmosphere in which rivals, journalists, and dissidents are targeted, jailed, and sometimes murdered. He invaded and annexed part of Ukraine; now the Baltic states fear the same fate. He aims to weaken NATO, end U.S. missile defenses in Europe, and coddle Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime – none of which are in America’s interests.
We are not McCarthyites who see a red under every bed. But Putin’s efforts to muscle Russia back into a more dominant global role are coming at America’s expense – an expense America must never accept, either tacitly or explicitly. Nobody seeks a new Cold War, but we must not shrink from threats.
Those content to shrug off Russian meddling because they’re satisfied with our election’s result are ignoring the likelihood that such tactics eventually will be deployed against them – or even more worrisome, the possibility that Putin selectively released information to assist President Trump’s campaign while holding back some information as leverage to influence him.
We must restore Americans’ trust that their government serves only them, and not outside actors; our nation can’t move forward with confidence and authority until we’ve put our house in order. This is not the time for “alternative facts;” Americans want and deserve the truth.
Burying our heads in the sand won’t ward off the wolf – or the Russian bear – at our door. We must have an independent, bipartisan commission now to protect our democracy in the years to come.