Focusing on election interference from 2016 is backwards thinking, though, at least according to Virginia Senator Mark Warner. With 2020 just around the corner, he tells WIRED—in an exclusive interview—that the upcoming election is where both parties need to direct their attention right now.As the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Warner has long been a vocal proponent of new legislation to strengthen election protections, such as the Honest Ad Act, which would compel Silicon Valley firms to disclose when political ads are paid for by a foreign nation. He’s also behind a bill that would require campaigns to alert federal officials if they’re approached by a foreign operative offering information or other assistance. Both bills have bipartisan support—Senator Susan Collins became the first Republican to cosponsor the Foreign Influence Reporting in Elections Act earlier this week.
The Russian meddling that rocked the 2016 United States presidential election gave the public a full view of something election officials and advocates have warned about for years: weak voting infrastructure and election systems around the US, and a lack of political will and funding to strengthen them.
Even as GOP leaders try to position election security as a partisan issue, Warner—a former governor of Virginia and a cofounder of the firm that eventually became Nextel—has maintained the respect of his colleagues across the aisle. But his frustration seems to be growing, especially now that Trump has tapped Representative John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to be his next director of national intelligence. Unlike Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has already come out opposed to Ratcliffe, Warner tells WIRED he’s still got some patience left. Even if it’s wearing thin.
This transcript is slightly edited for length and clarity.WIRED: After Mueller testified, the president and Republicans say case closed. What do you make of that?Mark Warner: I'm not here to relitigate 2016, or the Mueller testimony, specifically. I would point out, out of the Mueller investigation: 37 indictments, the president's national security adviser pled guilty. The president's campaign manager pled guilty. The president's deputy campaign manager pled guilty. The president's chief political adviser is coming to trial in the fall, Roger Stone. The attorney general had to resign. There were literally hundreds of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian agents.That's not normal. And I think the biggest takeaway from the Mueller testimony was that the Russians who attacked us in 2016 are still attacking us and, in Bob Mueller's words, on a daily basis. You combine that with the warnings from Trump's own FBI director [Christopher Wray] and Trump's own director of national intelligence [Dan Coats]. And one of the things that concerns me the greatest is that we've not done more to protect the integrity of our election system in 2020.
I was just talking to your [Intelligence Committee] cochair, Senator [Richard] Burr, and he was saying the states in 2018 weathered these attacks, the national infrastructure is good on election security. Basically, case closed, again, not much more is needed.I think everyone picked up their game in 2018, including the Department of Homeland Security, and our intelligence community was more active as well. But the intelligence community's own reporting was that Russia didn't throw its full force of efforts in 2018. Chances are they'll reserve those for the presidential election. So I think there is some low-hanging fruit that would get 75 votes on the floor of the Senate—if we could get these bills to the floor of the Senate.
"If you add up all Russia spent in the Brexit vote, the French presidential elections, and the 2016 American elections, it’s less than the cost of one new F-35 airplane."Senator Mark WarnerI think there ought to be an affirmative obligation that if a foreign government, the Kremlin, offers you campaign help, your obligation ought to be not to say thank you, but to report to the FBI. I think we ought to make sure that every polling station in America has a paper ballot backup, so that if a machine was hacked, you've still got ability to protect the integrity of the voting system. And I haven't met anyone that doesn't think we need some basic guard rails around the manipulation of Facebook, Twitter, and Google by foreign entities and others. So at least there ought to be the requirement that if somebody advertises on a political basis on Facebook, but in truth it's a foreign government, they ought to have the same disclosure requirements as somebody who advertises on radio or television.