One week after Robert Mueller’s testimony shined a spotlight once again on election interference, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is feeling the heat. The leader turned heads on the Senate floor Monday as he rose to decry critics who have dubbed him “a Russian asset” and “Moscow Mitch” for stonewalling congressional measures to improve election security. And with momentum building in the House to formally start impeachment proceedings against President Trump, the pressure is unlikely to let up anytime soon.
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.
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 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 advisor pled guilty. The president’s campaign manager pled guilty. The president’s deputy campaign manager pled guilty. The president’s chief political advisor 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] co-chair, 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 Warner
I 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.
Isn’t it a little bit ironic that in this highly digital era, we’re going back to paper ballots?
I think we need to make sure that we use the best technology, but if technology, as we see from banks this week, can continue to be hacked into, if voting machines are not as protected as needed, if the private companies who control the voter files could have their information moved around… You don’t need to change votes to cause chaos. I think people’s overall confidence in the system goes up if there is that back check of having a paper ballot backup. Again, this is not saying we wouldn’t still use voting machines, but across the election community everyone believes it’s safer if you have that paper ballot backup that goes along with the voting counting machines.
And now we know we’re getting attacked, cybersecurity is on the top of many minds. And then the president this week announced he’s nominating Rep. John Ratcliffe to be DNI, who seems like more of a politician and a Trump supporter than someone from the intel community. Does that worry you?
It worries me greatly. The irony is that Donald Trump’s appointees in the intel world—his director of national intelligence, Dan Coats; his director of the FBI, Chris Wray, his director of the CIA, Gina Haspel—have been pretty good about speaking truth to power, even when Trump did not want to hear the truth. They’ve been very good at not allowing America’s intelligence to get politicized, while I’m going to give Mr. Ratcliffe the courtesy of a meeting, I fear that he is being appointed in the mold of a Bill Barr, the attorney general, who basically is simply a loyalist first to Donald Trump and doesn’t maintain that kind of independence.
If there’s ever been a time when everyone says that Russians and others will be back, when we’ve got as many potential conflict spots around the world, we need to make sure that the head of our national intelligence is not going to politicize the intelligence. That intelligence product goes to our military, it goes to the executive, it goes to us in the Congress. It cannot be a political product. And we’ve got to make sure that the intelligence community is going to be willing to speak truth to power, and that means telling Donald Trump the truth, even if he doesn’t want to hear it. And so far it appears to me that Mr. Ratcliffe, who doesn’t have much experience and who seems—based upon press reports—that his audition was based on questioning Mueller and questioning the legitimacy of the Russian’s intervention in our electoral system, is pretty chilling.
What do you see as the biggest threats—or are there any new threats—facing America in 2020?
So I think there are a couple of new threats. One, Russia in 2016 was surprised at how vulnerable our systems were, our electoral systems. And how easy Facebook and Twitter and YouTube were to be manipulated. So I think that playbook is now out there, they’ve used the same tactics in the Brexit vote [and] the French presidential elections. So my fear is we may not only see Russia, we can see Iran, we could potentially see China, who has a great deal of control over a number of their Chinese tech companies, start to use these tools because they’re cheap and effective. I like to point out that 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. So Russia and our adversaries, I think, have decided the way to engage with us in conflict is not through straight up old-school military but through cyber activities, misinformation and disinformation, increasingly trying to weaken and interfere, for example with our space communications, and I think Russia will up their game…and others… [It] means there will be more adversaries in 2020.
Second is, I think in 2016 we saw Russia try to misrepresent—the Russian agents misrepresent themselves as Americans on Facebook and Twitter by simply posting fake messages. The next iteration, the next generation of that will be the so-called “deepfake” technology, where an American may not be able to view what his eyes are telling him, because you’ll see an image of you or me or a political figure that may sound like that person but isn’t that person at all.
Now, if McConnell doesn’t allow some of these bills, like the Honest Ads Act or just broader election security bills, to come up, what do you think the Silicon Valley tech firms can do on their own?
Look, we’ve seen progress made by Facebook, Twitter, some progress made by Google. But I don’t think self-regulation, particularly when a regulation may mean they may not be collecting as much information as they like, or self-regulation may mean they have to go against or limit some of the fake content. It goes against their very business model. So I think Facebook has made progress in particular, but some of the tools they have—for example, the ability to access on an easy basis the campaign ads that they promised, that tool is not effective at all.
So at the end of the day, when we’re talking about something as critical as protecting the integrity of our democracy, when Americans lack faith in so many of our institutions to start with, if we don’t go the extra mile and put in place a set of rules and regulations—and god forbid should Russia or Iran or another foreign enterprise massively interfere again—and we didn’t do our duty, then shame on all of us.
This week, two fairly senior Senate Democrats called for impeachment proceedings to begin. Where are you on that? We started this conversation with you saying you don’t want to relitigate 2016, but it seems like there’s this growing chorus amongst Democrats to impeach.
I actually think Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi has navigated that challenge very well. I understand the frustrations with President Trump—his activities and tweets and antics. I think, though, the best way we can show that that’s not who we are as Americans is to defeat him at the ballot box in a free and fair election. And what I worry about is if we don’t guarantee that free and fair election, then we haven’t done our job.