- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2018

President Trump insisted Wednesday that he has been tougher on Russia than his predecessors, outlining sanctions and other ways he’s punished Moscow as the White House tried to quell the furor in Washington over the administration’s response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Facing more criticism for failing to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly at their summit this week, Mr. Trump noted that his approach to Moscow has included the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats from the U.S. last year, economic sanctions, and even a cruise-missile attack against Russia’s longtime ally Syria after it used chemical weapons on civilians in April.

“There has never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been,” Mr. Trump said at a Cabinet meeting at the White House. “I think President [Vladimir] Putin knows that better than anyone, certainly a lot better than the media. He understands it, and he’s not happy about it and he shouldn’t be happy about it.”

Mr. Trump also said in an interview Wednesday that he was firm with Mr. Putin, telling the Russian leader privately that “we can’t have meddling” in U.S. elections, despite failing to confront him on it during their joint press conference.

“I let him know we can’t have this, we’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be,” Mr. Trump told CBS News.

The White House also blamed former President Barack Obama again for failing to take stronger action during the presidential election in 2016 to stop Russia’s cyber attacks against U.S. election systems and political parties.

“Let’s not forget that this didn’t happen under President Trump’s watch, this happened under the Obama administration,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

While Democrats and the administration pointed fingers over security weaknesses in the 2016 election, voting integrity advocates complain that Congress has done little to prevent a repeat in the mid-term elections this year. There are at least two bills addressing election security in the Congressional hopper, but neither is likely to pass this year.

A bill by Sens. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, and Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, called the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act, would establish specific punishments for the Russian government or other countries that interfere in U.S. political campaigns.

If approved, the measure spells out sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy such as energy and mining that must be implemented within 10 days of the Director of National Intelligence determining that election interference took place.

Under the bill, foreign governments are forbidden from buying advertisements to influence elections, using social media to spread “significant amounts” of false information, and hacking election or voter registration databases and campaign emails.

More conservative lawmakers are supporting the measure, and Mr. Rubio said this week he’s hopeful that it’s gaining momentum.

Another measure, the Secure Elections Act, sponsored by Sens. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, and Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, would streamline ways for state and federal officials to exchange threat information about elections.

Mr. Lankford urged colleagues on the Senate Rules Committee earlier this month to take action on the bill. “It is exceptionally important that we actually get a bill across the floor, get it passed and be able to help secure our elections for the future,” he said.

Congress did authorize $380 million in federal election security funding to be distributed to states through the Election Assistance Commission, an agency established after the 2000 presidential election. About 88 percent of that money has been transferred to the states, the commission announced this week.

States have “wasted no time in requesting these funds and developing their plans to bolster election security and administration,” EAC Chairman Thomas Hicks said. “Congress intended for these security funds to be extended to the states as quickly as possible to have a significant impact on the 2018 election and beyond.”

Thirteen states have said they intend to use the money to buy new voting machines. But most states don’t plan to replace their machines before the November election, including the five states that rely only on paperless electronic voting machines.

The nation’s largest voting equipment vendor, Election Systems and Software, said this week that remote-access software came preinstalled on some of its election-management systems, effectively creating potential points of entry for attackers to exploit.

The company told Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, that it the software “to a small number of customers between 2000 and 2006.”

The extent of Russian influence in the 2016 election remains in doubt. Executives from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube told Congress Tuesday that activity by Russian internet operatives during the 2016 election was a tiny part of social media posts overall.

Juniper Downs, a YouTube executive, said the company found only $5,000 in spending and some 1,000 videos that could be traced to Russian meddling. Facebook’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, said “a few thousand” out of some 2 billion posts were traced to Russian sources.

Two senators will try to force a vote Thursday on their resolution backing the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that Russia intervened in the 2016 election and commending the Justice Department for bringing charges against Russian officials.

Sens. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, and Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat, introduced the bipartisan resolution amid fallout from Mr. Trump’s comments after his Helsinki summit with Mr. Putin.

Mr. Flake said the Senate “must reaffirm that we stand” with the Justice Department in its investigation. Mr. Coons said the president’s actions have made it important to “speak in a clear, bipartisan voice” and show the U.S. “will not tolerate future attacks from Russia or anyone else on our democracy.”

It is unclear whether the vote will happen.

The move came as the White House tried to tamp down what it called another misunderstanding about the president’s views of the Kemlin’s meddling. Asked by reporters whether Moscow is still targeting the U.S., Mr. Trump replied, “No.”

But Mrs. Sanders said later that Mr. Trump was saying “no” to answer reporters’ questions. She said of Russia’s meddling, “We believe the threat still exists.”

“The president and his administration are working very hard to make sure that Russia is unable to meddle in our elections,” she said.

His comments came after Mr. Trump said in a meeting with Mr. Putin on Monday that he didn’t see any reason why Russia would have meddled in the 2016 presidential election with cyberattacks.

On Tuesday, Mr. Trump said he misspoke, and clarified that he accepts the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia did interfere in the election.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said on Monday that Russia is actively engaged in “ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.” He said last week that the “warning lights are blinking red,” akin to intelligence warnings prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Mrs. Sanders noted that Mr. Trump signed an executive order in May 2017 to strengthen and review the nation’s cybersecurity,

and that the Department of Homeland Security is working with states, local governments and private companies to improve election security.

She said 34 states, 52 county and local governments and five election companies “receive cybersecurity scans regularly from DHS,” and that Congress and the administration approved the $380 million in federal funding for states to beef up election security.

“These are steps that we’ve taken to prevent it from happening,” she said. “These are steps that we’ve taken because we see that there’s a threat there.”

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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