Ukraine Scandal Hangs Over House Hearing on Election Threats

Deputy Assistant Attorney General for National Security Adam Hickey, right, sitting next to FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Nikki Flores, left, testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump wasn’t in the room Tuesday when a House panel questioned government officials about the threat of foreign interference in the 2020 election. But the issues at the center of the impeachment inquiry against him loomed large as lawmakers asked about the integrity and security of U.S. elections.

This month, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a joint warning that U.S. elections could be targeted in 2020 by actors in Russia or China. The warning was delivered on the heels of the Senate’s approval of $250 million for election security measures.

The appropriation was hailed by most Republican senators as prudent while largely panned by most Democratic senators as a half-step taken toward the full investment federal, state and local election authorities need to tackle a wide array of election security concerns ahead of 2020.

But in the House, where Trump’s impeachment inquiry is playing out at full speed and roiling divisions among lawmakers, election security legislation is an even more difficult subject to address – let alone pass.

House Democrats are focusing their investigation on a July 25 phone call in which Trump urged Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Trump’s potential 2020 opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden’s son Hunter.

The division between Republicans and Democrats in the House was on stark display during a hearing Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee on election security.

Ben Hovland, vice chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, told lawmakers about the strides the agency has taken since 2018’s $380 million federal infusion to improve election security infrastructure. Hovland said there was significant “replacement of outdated equipment and greater implementation of election audits.”

Matthew Masterson, cybersecurity adviser to the Department of Homeland Security and Nikki Floris, the FBI’s deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, joined Hovland in their optimism. Homeland Security and FBI are for the first time united in their ability to share information and coordinate with government officials at the slightest hint of interference, they said.

But their testimony appeared to fall on deaf ears as Congressman Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., instead pressed Floris for several minutes about her position on the ethical implications of an extramarital affair on the part of former FBI agent Peter Strzok. Strzok was fired last year after he made derogatory comments about Trump in a text.

“I have no comment on the context of his actions,” Floris told Gaetz, at least three times.

Other Republicans, like Arizona Congresswoman Debbie Lesko, centered questions less around the nuance of election security infrastructure and more around what she called Trump’s right to ask a foreign country for help if he believed they could alleviate corruption or concerns about domestic elections.

Three of the four the witnesses were unequivocal – asking a foreign government to interfere in any way in an American election is ill-advised, they said.

Adam Hickey, deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s national security division, was less direct, saying instead that he would not comment on the president’s activities. But when pressed, Hickey agreed that anyone who has information about improper influence from a foreign source should contact authorities.

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