The GOP’s skepticism on election interference
President Trump this week tapped a skeptic of the Russia investigation to become the director of national intelligence amid renewed warnings that the Kremlin is working to sabotage the country’s vulnerable electoral infrastructure. Trump nominated Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas to oversee the nation’s network of 17 spy agencies, forcing out Dan Coats. As DNI, Coats frequently undercut the president’s attempts to downplay Russian meddling, defending the intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow sought to tilt the 2016 election to Trump. Ratcliffe has signed on to the Republican theory it was actually Hillary Clinton’s campaign that conspired with Russia as a way to discredit Trump. (See Talking Points.) He received the nomination just days after impressing Trump by attacking special counsel Robert Mueller for stating that Trump hadn’t been exonerated of a crime. “We need somebody strong that can really rein it in,” Trump said of Ratcliffe. “Because as I think you’ve all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok. They’ve run amok.”
Ratcliffe, however, faces an uphill confirmation battle, with some GOP senators skeptical about his lack of national security experience. Sen. Richard Burr, head of the Intelligence Committee, called him “too political.” Burr’s committee revealed last week that Russian hackers probed election systems in all 50 states in 2016, perhaps finding vulnerabilities to exploit in 2020. Nevertheless, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked votes on several election security bills passed by Democrats in the House of Representatives, prompting a storm of criticism, with #MoscowMitch trending on Twitter. On the Senate floor, an angry McConnell called suggestions that he wanted Russia to interfere again in 2020 “modern-day McCarthyism.”
What the editorials said
Republicans have issued an “all but open invitation to foreign attacks on the next presidential election,” said the San Francisco Chronicle. McConnell says the many election security bills he blocked were “partisan legislation” designed to help Democrats. But that’s nonsense. One of the bills would have spent $600 million to upgrade voting machines to leave a “verifiable paper trail,” a security measure against hacked vote totals. McConnell also killed a bill requiring campaigns to notify authorities if foreign nationals contact them. These maneuvers suggest “Trump and McConnell are not above any means of retaining power—even the assistance of the nation’s enemies.”
McConnell isn’t a “toady for Russia,” said The Wall Street Journal. The Senate majority leader has long opposed efforts to nationalize election rules “that have been historically managed by the states,” and he’s right. “A national system would be easier to hack than the systems of 50 states.” The Senate under McConnell provided states with an additional $380 million in election security funds just last year.
What the columnists said
Ratcliffe is a “dangerous pick,” said Garrett Graff in Wired.com. Unlike previous directors, Ratcliffe has virtually no national security experience. He has boasted that he “put terrorists in prison” during his brief stint as a U.S. attorney in the Bush administration, but that’s a dramatic exaggeration: He was asked to review the causes of a mistrial in a single terrorism-related case. He’s also a conspiracymonger, adopting the debunked rumor that the FBI had a “secret society” to bring down Trump. The prospect of Ratcliffe standing guard against Russian interference “should terrify Americans.”
Relax, said Eli Lake in Bloomberg.com. The DNI is a “notoriously weak” position. In theory, they set the budget priorities for the intelligence community. In practice, they have no power to dictate to the other agencies. “Without experience in the national security state, persuading subordinate agencies is near impossible.” So even if Ratcliffe turns out to be the lickspittle that critics fear, he’ll have little impact on our counterintelligence efforts.
McConnell is a far greater threat, said Dana Milbank in The Washington Post. Indeed, he behaves like a “Russian asset.” He has blocked bipartisan bills requiring internet companies to disclose who pays for political ads and to impose sanctions on anyone who attacks our elections. During the 2016 campaign, President Obama asked him to issue a joint statement on Russian interference—and McConnell refused, questioning the validity of the intelligence. “A leader who won’t protect our country from attack is no patriot.”
Cover illustration by Fred Harper.
On the cover: Reps. John Ratcliffe, Devin Nunes, and Mitch McConnell.
Cover photos from Getty, Media Bakery, AP ■