Former special counsel Robert Mueller’s long day of testimony on Capitol Hill had all the elements one expects of political theater in these partisan times. Some day, scholars will have to analyze all the questioning and determine how much was posturing by lawmakers and how much was actual fact-finding (or at least maintained the appearance of information gathering).
One imagines 2% would be a generous estimate. And while there’s certainly value in Americans hearing from the man-of-the-hour that President Trump was not actually exculpated of wrongdoing (as much as he and his minions continue to falsely claim otherwise), the most important point to be made showed up in the first 10 minutes.
That was when Mueller, the former FBI director, decorated U.S. Marine Corps veteran, lawyer and longtime federal prosecutor, observed in his opening statement that Russian interference in the 2016 election was real and serious and resulted in criminal charges filed against more than 30 defendants including 12 officers of the Russian military.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy,” he concluded in his best Joe Friday no-nonsense voice. “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious. As I said on May 29, this deserves the attention of every American.”
Perhaps this sounds familiar. It should. One day earlier, current FBI Director Christopher Wray made a similarly chilling point. In Senate testimony, he said Russia was preparing to hack and propagandize the 2020 election despite U.S. sanctions and other efforts. “They haven’t been deterred enough,” Wray testified at one point. Top intelligence officials have apparently expressed similar worries.
Given these dire warnings, the lessons of 2016 and the fears of a 2020 repeat, one might assume that Congress and the White House would be doing everything within their collective power to make sure that neither Russia nor China nor any other foreign power that might benefit from undermining the next U.S. election would be prevented from doing so. And, of course, you would be exactly wrong. The current scandal of the Mueller probe is not how it’s been misrepresented or politicized, it’s how its chief finding has been ignored by those in power. The federal government’s efforts to protect the 2020 election to date have been modest at best.
You want to point a finger? Start with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who has refused to allow his chamber to take up the bipartisan Secure Elections Act. He claims the federal government has appropriated sufficient funds to states for them to protect the process. What nonsense. There are still a handful of states (Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina) that lack a paper trail to back up digital systems. Another 10 have only a partial paper trail. In reality, it’s costly to replace aging voting equipment and well beyond the $380 millionWashington appropriated for that purpose last year. And that’s just about direct manipulation of votes.
There’s also the matter of hacking into email or using social media accounts under false names to manipulate public opinion, as the Russians did so successfully three years ago.
And then there’s Trump who seems to believe that any acknowledgement of Russian interference in 2016 delegitimizes his presidency and so he has frequently disagreed with his own administration over exactly what happened and what to do about next year.
In a meeting with Vladimir Putin just last month, the president was once again making light of the issue, wagging a finger at the Russian president who was laughing all the while.
You can always laugh at how often the special counsel felt he had to keep his mouth shut and declined to answer. Or the imbecility of Republicans asking him over and over again to comment on matters related to the so-called Steele Dossier, which is being investigated by someone else. But what is not the least bit funny is what all Americans should be focused on right now — insisting on a free, fair and clean election in 2020.
That’s what the Mueller testimony really underscores, but it’s in danger of getting lost for all the inside-the-beltway spin.