Prologue: The first meeting of President Donald J. Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia took place at the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany in early July. Putin had met with three American presidents over the years: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama before the much anticipated in-person opportunity to meet face to face with Trump. Putin has pursued a singular goal with all former presidents — to rebuild Russia to its former superpower status held by the Soviet Union. George W. Bush said that he “looked deeply into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul.” Barack Obama told Putin to “Cut out meddling in our election!” as the tumultuous 2016 campaign unfolded.
The Trump-Putin meeting, planned for 30 minutes, lasted for two and a half hours. It was restricted to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson , Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and two interpreters. The six men sat in a semi-circle of armchairs with the presidents at the center, separated by a small low table. A dramatic picture shows Trump speaking and Putin leaning toward him, with a warm, seductive smile. Later Tillerson said he had urged the president to hit Putin hard on the meddling issue. Yet, he was stunned that Trump began abruptly, saying to Putin, “I’m going to get this out of the way. Did you do this?” Putin replied “No. I did not.”
Later, a senior White House official ,who had been briefed by Tillerson, said Trump had pressed Putin on the issue for 40 minutes, with the exchange heated at times. Sergey Lavrov, gave a very different account, that “U.S. President Trump heard firm assertions from Russian President Putin that it is not true and Russian authorities have not meddled in the elections.” He added, “Mr. Trump says he accepts these assertions – and that’s it.” In rebuttal, the White House rejected Lavrov’s account.
To further complicate the matter, it was well known that Trump had said during his first stop in Poland that he was not convinced that the Russians had cyberhacked our election. He did not agree with the sixteen Intelligence Agencies of the United States whose leaders had testified that had occurred. He referred back to the Intelligence reports before the Iraq War that erroneously charged Saddam Hussein with having Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Congressional Investigations: The Senate and House Intelligence Committees have been holding investigations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election for many months. Republican Chairs and Democratic ranking members have worked together in open and closed hearings to lead interviews of former Director of Intelligence and other authorities under oath. James Comey, former F.B.I. Director and Sally Yates, former Deputy U.S. Attorney General, testified in open hearings about investigations of Russian interference. Comey also testified about his meetings with President Trump in a blockbuster media event.
After the president fired James Comey, Robert Mueller, highly respected former F.B. I. director was chosen by the deputy attorney general , Rod Rosenstein, as special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. Trump insisted he personally was not being investigated and called it “a witch hunt”. Although the F.B.I. work continues in complete secrecy, it appears that possible “obstruction of justice” by the president in his conversations with Comey could be considered.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has also been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. On June 14, it was reported that the Senate had voted new sanctions against Russia to punish them for their meddling. By June 21, it was reported that the administration had imposed a new set of sanctions on Russia. The sanctions were placed on more than three dozen individuals and organizations that had taken part in Russia’s incursion into Urkaine.
Brennan Center for Justice New Study: The best source for Election Research identified the two critical pieces of election infrastructure —aging voting machines and voter registration databases relying on outdated software —that are targets for hackers. They emphasize that updating both can be done at reasonable cost. Brennan researchers concluded that Russian hackers tried to break into databases in at least 39 states, aiming to alter or delete voter data. In addition, they tried to take control of the computers of more than 100 local election officials before election day. Brennan did NOT find that they were successful in gaining control of the U.S. computers. However, they report that they were successful in other countries and its only a matter of time before they try to do it again here. James Woolsey, the former C.I.A. director wrote in an intro to the Brennan Center report, “ I am confident the Russians will be back, and they will take what they have learned last year to attempt to inflictFirst more damage in future elections.”
Three immediate steps states and localities can take: First, conduct regular threat assessments of voter registration systems and upgrade, if necessary. 42 states use systems at least a decade old that rely on outdated software very susceptible to hackers. The annual cost of doing these assessments across the country would be $1 to $5 million;upgrades extra. Second, Replace old electronic voting machines that lack a paper trail. 14 states still use these machines. New machines would cost between $130 -$400 million. Third, Audit the votes. Compare a random sample of paper records to voting machine records. Look for differences.
Role of Congress and The federal Election Assistance Commission: New York Times editorial, “Congress needs to allocate more money now to help states upgrade their equipment and computer systems, and to perform threat assessments.” The Election Assistance Commission was set up after the 2000 presidential standoff between Bush and Gore. It has a small staff and budget, but it is the right government agency to spearhead this proposal to Congress.
Voting in the United States was decentralized deliberately. States and localities run elections in 8,000 jurisdictions and about 100,000 polling places. This makes it unlikely that any single cyberattack can do much harm. That’s the good news. The bad news is that voting machine systems and machines are rarely a priority in budgets. However, Russian hacking in the 2016 election has heightened the public’s attention and angered our representatives and governors of states. Hopefully, they are ready to make changes in their budgets to prevent this from happening again in the 2018 Midterms and the 2020 Presidential Election.
……………………………………………………………………………………….Joyce S. Anderson