Russia’s Threat Grows as White House Ignores It, Dems Warn

WASHINGTON (CN) – Senate Democrats warned Wednesday that the failure for over a year to answer Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has brought an increased threat of foreign interference.

Sounding the alarm this morning in a minority staff report, Democrats on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee called the nonresponse by President Donald Trump negligent.

“Never before in American history has so clear a threat to national security been so clearly ignored by a U.S. president,” the 206-page report says.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the committee, commissioned the Jan. 10 report shortly after the 2016 election, when several U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that a Russian intelligence influence operation approved at the highest levels had tried to sway the election in Trump’s favor through disinformation, fake social media accounts and cyberattacks that targeted the Democratic Party.

Although President Trump has previously said he accepted the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community, he reversed course after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a November trip to Asia.

Russia has repeatedly denied that it interfered in the election, and Trump said he believed Putin.

The White House did not respond to an email seeking comment on the  report released by Cardin, but President Trump used his Twitter account Wednesday to again deny colluding with the Russian effort.

“The single greatest Witch Hunt in American history continues,” Trump tweeted this morning. “There was no collusion, everybody including the Dems knows there was no collusion, & yet on and on it goes. Russia & the world is laughing at the stupidity they are witnessing. Republicans should finally take control!”

Investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election are underway in both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, as well as the House Judiciary Committee. At the Department of Justice meanwhile Special Counsel Robert Mueller is overseeing a probe of whether members of the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian effort.

Although the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee is not conducting a parallel investigation, Cardin said he released the report Wednesday morning to illuminate for Americans the “scope and scale” of Russian efforts to undermine democratic institutions in Europe and the United States.

“President Trump must be clear-eyed about the Russian threat, take action to strengthen our government’s response and our institutions, and – as have other president’s in times of crisis – mobilize our country and work with an international coalition to counter the threat and assert our values,” Cardin  said in a statement.

The report argues that failure to counter the threat now will lead Putin to accelerate his attacks abroad to shore up his power at home, leaving future U.S. elections at risk.

“If the United States fails to work with urgency to address this complex and growing threat, the regime in Moscow will become further emboldened,” the report says. “It will continue to develop and refine its arsenal to use on democracies around the world, including against U.S. elections in 2018 and 2020.”

The report outlines two decades of tactics Putin has sharpened to undermine democracies abroad, including military force, cyber warfare, disinformation campaigns, organized crime and money laundering, intended to further entrench his grip on power, which he uses to enrich himself and a small circle of loyalists.

Of primary import to Putin, according to the report, is weakening European and American sanctions placed on Russia in response to its invasions of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Putin also wants to discredit budding democracies on Russia’s periphery that could be seen domestically as an appealing alternative to the corrupt and criminal rule Putin used to consolidate power at home.

More generally, the report says Putin views transparent democratic governments characterized by a free press, the rule of law and participatory citizens as a hindrance to the spread of corruption outside of Russia, which limits the opportunities for Putin and his inner circle to further enrich themselves.

The report recommends making use of funds Congress set aside for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center to counter Russian disinformation campaigns. But the report says a hiring freeze and delays from senior leadership at the agency have prevented the funds from being transferred to the center.

“While many mid-level and some senior-level officials throughout the State Department and U.S. government are cognizant of the threat posed by Mr. Putin’s asymmetric arsenal, the U.S. president continues to deny that any such threat exists, creating a leadership vacuum in our own government and among our European partners and allies,” the report says.

Among the numerous recommendations the report makes, it calls for a national response led by President Trump, and the establishment of a body modeled after the National Counterterrorism Center to coordinate U.S. policy to counter Russia’s malign meddling.

It also calls for $250 million over two years to be funneled toward building up democratic institutions and values in European and Eurasian states most vulnerable to Russian influence campaigns.

The report further calls on the Department of the Treasury to publicize any information it has that would expose Putin’s corruption and the wealth he stores abroad. By working with European allies, the report says America could cut Putin and his close associates off from the international financial system.

Micah Johnson, a spokeswoman for Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee received a copy of the report Monday evening.

“Through a series of public hearings and classified briefings, the committee has conducted its oversight responsibilities related to Russia throughout Senator Corker’s tenure as chairman, and most recently, worked directly with the Senate Banking Committee to expand sanctions against the government of Russia in response to its continued aggression, including its brazen cyber-attacks and interference in elections,” Johnson said. “While we will review the report in its entirety, including the recommendations, no further full committee activity is planned at this time.”

Sen. Cardin’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment on the report.

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