‘Russian Interference’ Is a Democracy Killer. What We Can Learn From Mueller’s Testimony.

by Kim Wehle
July 25, 2019
Featured Image
Robert Mueller is sworn in for his testimony before the House Select Committee on Intelligence, July 24, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony was a play in two acts. Wednesday morning, he answered the House Judiciary Committee’s questions about possible obstruction of justice by President Trump. In the afternoon, it was all-things-Russia before the House Intelligence Committee. Both segments warrant analysis, but the Russia stuff is vastly more serious.

Here are three takeaways:

1) The afternoon hearing was refreshingly bipartisan when it came to the insidious and ongoing problem of Russia’s attacks on our core electoral process.

“We the People” self-govern at the ballot box. If that process is distorted or hijacked—as was the case in part in 2016—our democracy’s foundations will eventually wither and die. Mueller was clear from his opening statement that Russian efforts to meddle with the American presidential election were “sweeping and systematic,” and that they were designed to benefit Donald Trump. Even more jarring was Mueller’s testimony that such attacks are happening “as we sit here” today, and that other adverse foreign powers have learned from Russia’s antics. 

Our democracy remains under siege, that siege will wreak “long term damage” on the United States, and “we need to move quickly to address it.” Yet President Trump has every incentive to allow—and encourage—Russia to help get him elected again. 

No Republican pushed back on any of the above.

Under responsible questioning by Texas Republican Will Hurd, a former CIA officer, Mueller urged Congress to pass immediate legislation to enable federal intelligence agencies to share information, expertise, and targets in order to secure our electoral systems. The FBI, CIA, and NSA are not talking to each other, and the American voter is the loser.

It turns out that there are several bills pending that would shore up the integrity of our electoral process. Under the cynical leadership of Mitch McConnell, Republicans in the Senate have so far blocked them. Reprehensible, but unsurprising.  

2) Unlike the first half of the Mueller hearing, the afternoon’s “bad guy” wasn’t the special counsel or even Donald Trump. It was Putin.

Three years into his presidency, the debate can still boil down to the lesser of two evils, Trump or Hillary Clinton. The pathologically tribal mentality of our current political and social culture leaves Trump supporters angry about the incessant attacks on their president, while Trump critics are left bereft with frustration and fear over what’s to come of American democracy.

But by the end of Mueller’s testimony, the title of villain had shifted to Vladimir Putin. Mueller outlined the two primary narratives of Russian nefariousness—a social media campaign to dupe American voters with lies and fake information, and the “hack and dump” shenanigans involving WikiLeaks, a “hostile intelligence service” that publicly released emails stolen from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The fact that Putin isn’t good for America came through loud and clear.

Here’s the problem: Trump has closely aligned himself with Putin in the eyes of his supporters. In their devotion to Trump, they cannot simultaneously entertain Putin-as-villain, who continues to influence the highest office in the land with impunity. It’s a tragedy that we can’t come together as a nation and point the finger at Putin, where it belongs.

3) Mueller confirmed that a candidate’s knowing acceptance of assistance from a hostile foreign power is unacceptable.

Finally, Mueller expressed “fear” that the “new normal” in American electoral politics is that candidates—like Trump—who are offered campaign assistance by a hostile foreign power will feel no responsibility to report it to U.S. authorities. He agreed that such behavior “can be a crime”; that it’s “unpatriotic,” “unethical,” and “wrong”; that it makes the recipient susceptible to blackmail; and that there should be higher standards for elected officials. Recall that impeachment does not require sufficient evidence to convict a president of a crime. The concern here is that we’ve become too numb to care, and we will pay a price for it.

Mueller’s understated, reserved, and sometimes shaky testimony amounted to a warning shot across the bow to anyone willing to listen. American democracy is in peril. The time to act is now. Who will take up his call?

Kim Wehle

Kim Wehle is a contributor to The Bulwark. She is also a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and a former assistant U.S. attorney and associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation and author of How to Read the Constitution and Why (Harper Collins).