U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Chris Van Hollen have a message for Moscow: Any interference in future U.S. elections will be met with swift punishment if Congress acts.
The Florida Republican who ran for president in 2016 and the Maryland Democrat will introduce a bill on Tuesday that sets explicit punishments for the Russian government — and other countries — if they meddle in future federal elections and directs the Director of National Intelligence to issue a report on potential election interference within one month of any federal election.
Rubio and Van Hollen’s bill comes as President Donald Trump has characterized two congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election as Democrat-led “witch hunts” and cast doubt on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that has already indicted four former Trump campaign officials, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
“For 11 months, they’ve had this phony cloud over this administration, over our government, and it has hurt our government,” Trump said. “It’s a Democrat hoax that was brought up as an excuse for losing an election.”
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But as some Republicans have joined Trump in questioning Mueller’s motives, Rubio has expressed confidence in the special counsel’s investigation and continues to argue that Russian interference is an ongoing threat for future U.S. elections. A 2017 report by the Director of National Intelligence determined that Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government “aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary (Hillary) Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
Rubio and Van Hollen’s bill, called the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act, is the first bill since the 2016 presidential election that sets specific punishments for the Russian government and other countries that interfere in U.S. political campaigns.
“We cannot be a country where foreign intelligence agencies attempt to influence our political process without consequences,” Rubio said in a statement. “This bill will help to ensure the integrity of our electoral process by using key national security tools to dissuade foreign powers from meddling in our elections.”
The bill, if passed, codifies specific penalties for the Russians that must implemented within 10 days if the Director of National Intelligence determines that interference took place.
The penalties include “sanctions on major sectors of the Russian economy, including finance, energy, defense, and metals and mining” and blacklisting every senior Russian political figure or oligarch identified in the Russian sanctions bill that became law in 2017 over the initial objections of Trump.
The White House will also be required to work with the European Union to get its nations’ support for additional sanctions so any U.S.-led effort will have a larger impact.
“Protecting the integrity of our elections is an issue that knows no party,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “And with the midterm elections less than a year away, we have no time to waste. The DETER ACT sends an unequivocal message to Russia and any other foreign actor who may follow its example: if you attack us, the consequences will be severe.”
The bill lays out specific acts by foreign governments that constitute election interference. Foreign governments are forbidden from purchasing advertisements to influence elections, using social and traditional media to spread “significant amounts” of false information, hacking election or campaign infrastructure such as voter registration databases and campaign emails, and blocking access to elections infrastructure such as websites that provide information on polling locations.
If the bill passes, the White House must also provide Congress with a plan to prevent foreign interference in U.S. elections from China, Iran and North Korea, three countries identified by the Director of National Intelligence as potential cyber threats in future U.S. elections.
“We know Russia manipulated social media channels and hacked political campaign committees and local elections boards to undermine our democratic process in 2016,” a press release from Rubio and Van Hollen said. “We expect the threat will grow in future years — and we must do everything possible to prevent these attacks. The DETER Act uses key national security tools to dissuade hostile foreign powers from meddling in our elections by ensuring that they know well in advance that the costs will outweigh the benefits.”