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Simon Rosenberg Trump wants to be seen as strong on Putin post-Helsinki. Focusing on election reforms is a start.

It'll take concrete actions for the president to prove he's not in Putin's pocket. Securing fair elections in 2018 could help.
Image: President Donald Trump delivers remarks to the media while meeting with members of Congress
President Donald Trump delivers remarks to the media while meeting with members of Congress at the White House in Washington on July 17, 2018.Michael Reynolds / EPA

In 2016 a new kind of war came to America — and it wasn’t the physical war we know so well, but one that involved cyberhacking, disinformation and the penetration of the electoral machinery of our elections. It was an extraordinary violation of America’s sovereignty, and was designed to weaken the political party and presidential candidate least favorable to Russia.

Contrary to the “meddling” meme so prevalent in the media, the attack was massive, sophisticated and sustained. It interfered with the Democratic Party’s ability to put on its own convention; dramatically weakened the party’s ability to execute its general election plan; revived intra-party tensions which had been largely quieted; harassed and distracted the senior leadership of the Clinton campaign itself; and (we now know) had a significant impact on the day-to-day discourse of a democratic election, reaching hundreds of millions of our citizens.

And of course all of this work by Russia was aided and abetted every day by the Trump presidential campaign and the Republican Party, who amplified the Russian effort’s impact, and brilliantly used American assets to turn against the interests of their own country. In retrospect this Russian operation was a great success — one that would encourage this rogue nation to keep using these new “hybrid war” tactics in the future, to keep undermining democracies and free societies and advancing Russian national interests.

Russia’s use of these tactics has not been limited to the United States: Russian disinformation and political efforts are commonplace throughout Europe today. We’ve seen high level efforts to influence politics and elections in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Eastern Europe and the Baltics. In October 2016, Russia attempted a coup in Montenegro to prevent it from joining NATO, a plan which included the assassination of the Prime Minister (the coup failed and it has since become a NATO member). Just last month, Greece expelled Russians caught again trying to interfere in a domestic political process which was bringing another small country, North Macedonia, under the NATO security umbrella.

What makes Trump’s obeisance to Putin in Helsinki far more dangerous for U.S. interests was his direct undermining of the NATO meeting days before and similar tactics at the G7 a month prior. The President not only appeared this week to be giving Russia’s Putin a pass on his attack on our democracy, but also seemingly aligned himself with Russia’s goal of weakening the Western alliance. It has been a great month for Putin, indeed.

The question now is what patriots of both parties here in the US do about all this. While it is going to take years to fashion a lasting response to these new threats, there are things we can and must do now. As I wrote recently, Congress must hold hearings and debate this dramatic realignment of American foreign policy — which remarkably hasn’t yet happened.

It is encouraging that Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to testify in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next week about the Helsinki meeting, but far more must be done. Congress should also consider a series of actions proposed by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., which include protecting the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and bringing the Russians who attacked our country to justice. And, most importantly, Congress should focus like a laser beam on protecting our 2018 elections from Russian interference.

In what has been a monstrous dereliction of duty by the president and his party, America does not have a clear plan for how to prevent a repeat of Russia’s 2016 active measures campaign this year Two sensible, bipartisan bills to protect our elections from future interference, the Secure Elections Act and DETER Act, have never been brought up for a vote by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and no election protection legislation has been produced by House Republicans. There is no single person in charge of protecting our elections and domestic discourse. The cyber coordinator position in the White House has been eliminated. The Secretary of Homeland Security publicly broke from the rest of the U.S. intelligence community in May and said that she does not believe that Russia acted on behalf of a particular political candidate or party in 2016 and, last weekend, she also downplayed the Russian threat to our elections a day after the Director of National Intelligence issued a dramatic warning about Russia’s ongoing measures in the U.S.

But, of course it is hard for White House staff or Congress to act on something that the president himself argues never happened.

Still, all of this leaves America unacceptably exposed this fall. While there isn’t enough time for big changes, Congress should pass and the president should sign at least one of the many election protection bills which have been introduced this year. It will be an indicator to the public and to the world the U.S. is taking all of this seriously.

Additionally, the president should appoint an elections protection coordinator to oversee our efforts to prevent Russia from striking again. This person should be in the White House and have enough authority to convene all relevant U.S. government stakeholders. Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., proposed such a move earlier this week, and it should be implemented immediately.

Finally, the Treasury Department must reverse its relaxation of reporting requirements for 501c(4) non-profit advocacy organizations. On the same day as Trump’s disastrous performance in Helsinki, the department announced that it was no longer requiring “dark money” organizations to report their donors to the IRS. As it is legal for these organizations to receive foreign money, this inexplicable move opens the floodgates for foreign governments and nationals to exert influence our elections without anyone knowing; it is literally an encouragement for the kind of active measures efforts we saw by Russia in 2016. Leaders of both parties should pressure the administration to reverse this unfortunate decision immediately.

Proud patriots here in the U.S. are confronted now with the hard, cold reality that no single step by Russian president Vladimir Putin in the coming months would do more to grow his global influence than to return to America and pull off another successful battle in this new age of hybrid war. Our Director of National Intelligence has issued about as grave a warning as he can that something like that is coming. While we have done far too little to prepare for Putin in 2018 there are real, concrete things we can do now to slow his progress. The question that remains is whether will we do them, or whether the president and his party will, once again, appease a foreign dictator and his illiberal global ambitions, selling out our nation along the way.

Simon Rosenberg is the President of NDN, a center-left think tank in Washington, DC. He has worked on issues involving globalization and the post WWII order for over 25 years.