It was extraordinary to hear a U.S. president declare that the FBI director is “wrong” for saying that candidates should report to the FBI — as the law clearly intends — any effort by foreign agents to aid a political candidate by passing along opposition research. President Trump does not understand the value of the law prohibiting campaigns from such aid, nor does he appear to have any intention of following it. For all the different interpretations of the Mueller report, there is one aspect of it where there should be no debate among Republicans and Democrats: The threat of foreign meddling in U.S. elections has increased, it must not be tolerated or abetted, and campaigns must be held accountable for assisting in policing this national security imperative. On this issue, the standard for ethical and patriotic behavior should not be whether someone engages in a criminal conspiracy. It should be whether someone acts with honor in rebuffing — and reporting — attempts at foreign influence. That did not happen in 2016, and unless Congress acts soon, we may see an even worse breach in 2020. The National Republican Campaign Committee has refused to pledge, as its Democratic counterpart has, not to use hacked or stolen materials. And now the president has indicated that his re-election campaign would be open to using them, too. The Russians — to say nothing of the North Koreans — must be grinning ear to ear.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, led by Dan Coats, noted two years ago that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election represented a “significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort” compared with previous attempts. Special Counsel Robert Mueller agreed, calling the Russian efforts “sweeping and systematic.”
Although a lot of this mischief took place in the digital realm of hackers and social-media trolls, a shocking amount happened face-to-face — and all the while the public was in the dark. Russian nationals or intermediaries had at least 140 contacts with key figures employed by or associated with Donald Trump’s campaign and transition teams.
Stopping campaigns from engaging in bouts of international footsie should be easy — far easier than addressing the multifaceted cyber-operations (run not only by Russia but also by China, Iran and other nations seeking to influence American politics). Congress can start by passing the Foreign Influence Reporting in Elections Act, sponsored by Senator Mark Warner of Virginia.
This sensible legislation would require campaign officials to maintain a basic compliance system to monitor election-related contacts with foreign nationals, and to report any such contacts to the Federal Election Commission. Elected office-holders and staff who meet with foreigners in an official capacity would be exempt.
Campaigns would need to alert the FEC within one week of receiving any offer of information, services or donations from a foreign national, and provide a summary description of who was involved and what was proposed. The FEC would then notify the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Anyone who knowingly violates the law would be subject to fines and imprisonment. That should limit the kind of misdirection employed by the Trump team in 2016, when high-ranking campaign figures, including the candidate himself, repeatedly denied any contacts with Russians.
By now it is abundantly clear that the public cannot simply trust campaign officials to act as honorably as Al Gore’s campaign did in 2000, when it came into possession of a Bush campaign briefing book and other materials and turned them over to the FBI. We should expect that kind of principled behavior. But we should not pretend every campaign is capable of it without legal compulsion.
This legislation alone is not enough to end foreign attempts at election interference. The vulnerabilities of U.S. infrastructure are too great and the potential rewards of manipulation, too enticing. But by making explicit what is out of bounds for American political campaigns, and reinforcing the rules with serious penalties, the proposed law should shore up at least onepolitical norm, and perhaps some small measure of public confidence, damaged in the 2016 election.
Still, the larger problem remains: the absence in the Oval Office of an understanding that patriotism requires ethical actions that transcend one’s own fortunes.