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Ex-White House staffer: Midterms are target

Former White House National Security Council staffer Graham Brookie speaks to Kate Bolduan about the possible threat of Russia influence in the upcoming midterm elections.

Posted: Aug 2, 2018 8:23 AM
Updated: Aug 2, 2018 8:39 AM

Two leading senators are asserting that President Donald Trump has not focused on the clear threat the Kremlin poses in the 2018 elections, with one Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee contending that Russian hackers may have already targeted most -- if not all -- sitting US senators.

Ratcheting up the push for a more robust US response to Russian interference in the midterms and 2020 elections, Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are now slated to get a committee vote this month on a bipartisan bill aimed at shoring up the nation's election system. But the two senators said their plan has run into hurdles for months -- and say the Russian threat is real headed into the midterms.

In a joint interview as the primary season wraps up and with the November midterms less than 100 days away, the senators told CNN Wednesday that there is far more that has to be done -- from the White House on down to the states.

"The intelligence community has been very active on this, the Department of Homeland Security has been active on this," Lankford said. "While the President has been inconsistent in his tweets, and some of the messaging that he's put on it, he's the only one in the government that hasn't been paying attention to this."

Klobuchar added: "There were clearly delays based on things the President was saying that weren't really directing their people to coordinate, they've admitted that under oath. But from the very beginning, Director (Dan) Coats made it clear that Russia has been emboldened and they're getting bolder."

The senators revealed that one of the Russian targets appear to be themselves. Asked about a Daily Beast report that Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill has been targeted by Russian hackers, Lankford acknowledged that virtually every senator has faced a similar threat, calling it a "pretty regular thing around here."

"I would be shocked if there's a senator that hasn't been targeted, quite frankly," said Lankford, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Because this a common issue for people trying to get in to get access to your information. And if they can get access into one office, they can get access into multiple offices. So they can look for any spot they were able to get into."

The comments come as Congress is moving to toughen the US response to Russian aggression in the elections amid growing bipartisan angst that the administration is not moving swiftly enough. After Trump's handling of last month's summit with Vladimir Putin was widely panned, Senate Republicans have called for more sanctions on the Kremlin -- and more lawmakers are calling for new legislation to force the federal government and states to take more significant action.

Asked about the Helsinki summit, Lankford said that Trump should have told Putin that Russian interference is "not acceptable anywhere in the world. You do that to your own people as you've done for years and year and years, but you can't do it to other people. I think that would've been a much clearer, much bolder statement to be able to confront him. The President chose not to do that for whatever reason, but I do think that's a missed opportunity."

The Secure Elections Act, a bill proposed by Klobuchar and Lankford and cosponsored by 10 other senators, s aimed at bolstering the state and federal response to cybersecurity and other threats posed in the elections, including by giving state officials security clearances to evaluate classified intelligence and respond to potential threats while also requiring auditing procedures after the elections to ensure the results can be verified. With 14 states lacking paper ballots, Klobuchar said they're encouraging states to "have some kind of a back-up paper ballot system" in order to get money to bolster their election systems.

The bill is slated to be considered by the Senate Rules Committee later this month. Its prospects on the Senate floor, and in the House, are uncertain.

After Congress set aside $380 million for states on election security earlier this year, critics on Capitol Hill have faulted the administration and states for not doing more. And Lanford and Klobuchar said they've encountered their own resistance from state officials.

"We've had our own frustration of working through the legislation," Lankford said. "Quite frankly, a lot of what we've had to work through over months and months is working with the states to make sure the states are in a place that they wanna be able to sign off on this bill."

Whether the bill would even deter the persistent Russian threat is still an open question.

Asked if Russians could tip the midterm elections this year, Klobuchar said: "Certainly, if they somehow got into the equipment and made changes to the vote counts. That would be called tilting the election."

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