GOP Digs for Distractions at Hearing on Mueller Report

Carrie Cordero, general counsel for the Center for New American Security, testifies Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee.

WASHINGTON (CN) – Facing a chorus of expert testimony about the the danger in the government’s head-in-the-sand approach to Russian election meddling, House Republicans were rebuffed at every turn Thursday as they raged about conspiracy theories and border security. 

“Democrats are angry that Trump is not a Russian asset and dislike him so much they wish he was a foreign agent,” sniped Georgia Republican Doug Collins, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.

The hearing this morning comes just days after fellow Republican Mitch McConnell blocked legislation in the Senate that would protect U.S. elections from interference, and another bill requiring that presidential campaigns notify the FBI about attempts of foreign interference.

Just last week in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopolous, President Donald Trump remarked that he would not alert the FBI if a foreign nation approached his campaign with opposition research about his Democratic challenger.

The Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler, skewered that position at Thursday’s hearing.

“What are we willing to accept from our leaders?” the New York congressman asked.

As the House heard from a panel of experts about the threat America faces from foreign interference, Carrie Cordero, general counsel for the Center for New American Security, said this risk will only worsen if the president refuses to take it seriously on the world stage or worse actively promotes it.

“One cannot faithfully defend the U.S. Constitution and be open to receiving foreign assistance at the same time,” Cordero said. “We cannot write off what transpired in 2016. There is still no whole of government strategy to counter foreign influence in governmental elections. There’s no legislation. Instead, we have only deflection, apathy and inaction.”

Putting such deflection on full display, Republican Representative Matt Gaetz tried to divert Cordero’s attention to a 2013 article she wrote about national-security threats posed by Mexican drug cartels.

Cordero was unfazed, however, as Gaetz asked her if the circumstances on the southern border had worsened or improved.

“When I wrote that report, I thought it was an issue that needed attention,” Cordero said. “There is clearly a humanitarian problem on the southern border that needs to be addressed.

“What you will not find in that article is any mention of a wall as a response to that challenge, nor any encouragement of any use of emergency authorities,” Cordero continued, to an eruption of laughter in the gallery.

While the Florida congressman railed about the Democrats’ focus on the Russia investigation, often speaking out of turn and causing minutes-long back-and-forth delays, he was chastened by a Florida colleague from across the aisle.

“We would love to talk about something else,” said Representative Ted Deutch. “But we can’t because we can’t get straight answers out of Trump administration officials, or in some cases, answers at all.”

Deutch noted that Congress saw its most recent example of stonewalling just a day earlier as former Trump aide Hope Hicks repeatedly claimed executive privilege to avoid giving answers.

When still on topic, Alina Polyakova, director of global democracy and emerging technology at the Brookings Institution, spoke about the lessons Americans can learn by reading the extensive report on Russian interference filed this spring by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Polyakova noted that intelligence insiders have for years known that Russian leadership doggedly preserves its authoritarianism by pursuing any means necessary to undermine democracy.

What the Mueller report showed for the first time, she said, is the sweeping effort by the Kremlin in 2016 to push that agenda.

Cordero agreed.

“The work laid out in the special counsel’s report has a variety of examples of how the campaign knew what was coming,” Cordero said. “It would have been more understandable if the campaign said they did not. But there was Rick Gates. And he admitted to Mueller, there was a staging of press strategy around the WikiLeaks release.”

Thursday’s hearing was the second in as many weeks focusing on findings of the report. More will follow, but Chairman Nadler refused to say whether he would subpoena Mueller to testify.

But that won’t stop curiosity by some lawmakers. “It seems to me there is a cloud of illegitimacy that continues to hang over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and patriotic Americans have a responsibility to figure out what the heck happened in terms of the malignant tumor that seems to have been embedded in that 2016 campaign,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat. “What did the president know and when did he know it and how do we prevent this type of malignant activity from happening again?”

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