Mr. President, I come to the floor just the day before Robert Mueller is set to come before the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees to focus attention on some of the key findings of the special counsel’s report on Russia’s interference in our 2016 elections. I have spoken on the floor many times about the depth and breadth of the Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The special counsel’s report goes to great lengths to detail this, in his terms, ‘‘sweeping and systemic interference.’’ What continues to be worrisome is that these information warfare attacks and other malign influence operations are ongoing with more plans for our elections next year. This threat to our national security and the integrity of our democracy has yet to be sufficiently recognized or counted by this administration. Indeed, in the months since the report was released, the Trump administration and congressional Republicans have repeatedly claimed that the report vindicates the President on all charges of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and on obstruction of justice rather than taking steps to ensure that we will never be targeted in this way again.
The special counsel’s testimony is vital so he can detail what he uncovered and shed additional light on the events of the investigation. In particular, what Congress and the American people need to hear from Director Mueller relates to three broad categories of questions. For instance, what was the full scope of Russian interference in the 2016 election? Second, what evidence did the special counsel find of coordination between Trump campaign associates or the President and the Russian Government, and why did he decide the available evidence was not sufficient to prove a criminal conspiracy with Russia? Third, what evidence did the special counsel find that the President obstructed justice?
Tomorrow’s testimony will help the public understand the gravity of the President’s conduct in the White House and the extent to which Russia influenced the 2016 election. These hearings are not the end. This is not case closed. The intelligence community has assessed that the threat from Russia will continue to evolve and grow even more sophisticated. For our elections to remain free, open, and transparent, we must take seriously the threat posed by Russia and other potential foreign adversaries. We must hold hearings in the Senate with testimony from the special counsel’s office and key witnesses from the report. We must consider legislation on election security, foreign influence operations, disinformation, Federal election laws, money laundering, and many other issues.
When it comes to protecting our democracy, we cannot be complacent. Now is the time for action to make sure we are ready ahead of the elections in 2020 and beyond. Each and every one of us in this Chamber swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. In order to do that, we can’t just take tweets about no collusion and no obstruction at face value. This isn’t a witch hunt, nor should it be an effort to circle the partisan wagons around the President and absolve him of any wrongdoing. It has to be a serious examination of what happened and how to defend our Nation against future attacks.
Mr. President, in anticipation of the upcoming testimony of the special counsel before the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, I want to highlight key findings in his report that go to the heart of Russian interference into our elections in 2016 and the ongoing threat still facing our national security and the integrity of our democracy. Indeed many of the President’s own national security officials have warned of heightened Russian information warfare attacks and other foreign influence operations in next year’s election—which could make its 2016 interference in our elections, catalogued in the Mueller report, look like child’s play. Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Wray recently stated that the 2018 midterm elections were seen by Russia as ‘‘a dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020.’’ Wray added that the FBI anticipates the 2020 ‘‘threat being even more challenging.’’ Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats warned the Senate Intelligence Committee in January 2019 that, in the 2020 election cycle, ‘‘Moscow may employ additional influence toolkits—such as spreading disinformation, conducting hack-and-leak operations, or manipulating data—in a more targeted fashion to influence U.S. policy, actions, and elections.’’
Despite this ongoing and increasingly sophisticated threat, we are still not fully prepared to defend against the inevitable Russian attacks on our democracy. The Russian interference in the 2016 election was akin to a military operation against our nation. To date, we do not have a complete understanding of what happened in 2016. More importantly, we do not have a comprehensive strategy, nor have we reorganized our government or prepared the American people, so that such foreign interference will not happen again. The release of the Mueller report cannot mark the end of the strategy to investigate and prevent Russian interference. The special counsel’s testimony will add to the urgency for this administration and Congress to change course and act immediately to protect our democracy and strengthen public faith in the American election process. Since the release of the special counsel’s report, the President, the Attorney General, and some Republican congressional leaders have said that the case of Russian interference in the 2016 election is closed, that our work is done, and that we can move on. The President has repeatedly claimed that the special counsel’s report cleared him of any connections to Russia and any wrongdoing in contradiction of the voluminous evidence laid out in the report. But those declarations of innocence just don’t square with the facts. Congress has a constitutional duty to review the findings of the special counsel on behalf of the American people and not simply accept the administration’s spin and mischaracterizations of Robert Mueller’s findings. Despite the President’s declarations of ‘‘hoax’’ and ‘‘witch hunt,’’ the special counsel’s office did bring indictments for ‘‘conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud the United States’’ under 18 U.S. Code §371, against Putin crony Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was in charge of the Kremlin-linked troll operation known as the Internet Research Agency, and against his related holdings and multiple employees.
The investigation also resulted in conspiracy indictments of 12 officers from Russian Military Intelligence, also known as the GRU. While the available evidence did not meet the legal standard to charge the President or his associates with a crime for a coordinating role in that conspiracy, the special counsel takes care to note that does not mean that evidence of coordination does not exist. This is not, as the President has attested, ‘‘a complete and total exoneration.’’ As the special counsel plainly points out, in regards to coordination with Russia, while ‘‘this report embodies factual and legal determinations that the office believes to be accurate and complete to the greatest extent possible, given these identified gaps, the office cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in this report.’’ What is more, President Trump and his supporters purposefully leave out important context from the report where the special counsel explains that he lacked the authority to indict a sitting President because of an Office of Legal Counsel, OLC, opinion finding that ‘‘the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions’’ in violation of ‘‘the constitutional separation of powers.’’
Another critical consideration for the special counsel was that a Federal criminal investigation of a sitting President could preempt the authority vested in Congress by the Constitution to address Presidential misconduct. In addition, Mueller notes that ‘‘a President does not have immunity after he leaves office’’ and that ‘‘we conducted a thorough factual investigation in order to preserve the evidence when memories were fresh and documentary materials were available.’’ Put together, while the special counsel concluded that he could not prosecute the President, he makes it clear that he is creating a record of evidence and deferring to Congress and future prosecutors should they pursue an obstruction case. Which is all the more reason why we must hear from the special counsel on his findings and his decision-making process. In particular, what Congress and the American people need to hear from Special Counsel Mueller relates to three broad categories of questions. First, what was the nature and extent of the Russian interference campaign launched against the United States in the 2016 election? Second, what evidence did the investigation find of Trump campaign associates or the President coordinating with the Russian campaign, and why did Mueller decide the available evidence was not sufficient to prove ‘‘beyond a reasonable doubt’’ that they had criminally conspired with the Russian efforts? And the third set of issues relate to acts of obstruction by Trump campaign associates and the President himself. On the first set of issues, one of the main responsibilities charged to the special counsel by the Department of Justice was to conduct a ‘‘full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.’’ As the report concludes, ‘‘the Special Counsel’s investigation established that Russia interfered in the 2016 election principally through two operations.’’ First, Mueller provides detailed evidence that Kremlin-linked operators sought to help the Kremlin’s preferred candidate, whose election would serve Russia’s interests. The report describes how a Kremlin-linked troll operation, called the Internet Research Agency, ‘‘carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.’’ It also found that ‘‘[a]s early as 2014, the [Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency] instructed its employees to target U.S. persons who could be used to advance its operational goals.’’ Second, Mueller describes in detail the Russian spying operation to steal ‘‘dirt’’ on the opposition candidate and then use that stolen information against her. The report states unequivocally, ‘‘[a] Russian military intelligence’s spying operation conducted computer intrusion operations against entities, employees and volunteers working on the Clinton Campaign and then released stolen documents.’’ The Mueller report makes clear that the Russian election interference was a coordinated campaign targeting our democracy along multiple lines of effort. While these conclusions affirm the assessments of our intelligence community, the President appears unwilling or unable to take them seriously. At the G20 Summit in Osaka in June 2019, President Trump treated Russian election interference as a joke, signaling to Putin that he would not hold Russia accountable. And in a recent interview, the President failed to grasp what was wrong with taking ‘‘dirt’’ on his political opponent from a foreign source and indicated that, if it happened again in the 2020 campaign, he would listen to what they had to say and then decide whether or not to report it to the FBI.
Now let me turn to the second set of issues Special Counsel Mueller needs to address, relating to his task by the Department of Justice to investigate ‘‘any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.’’ The special counsel’s report presents significant evidence that President Trump and his associates embraced, encouraged, and applauded Russian help. The report definitively concludes that Russia saw its interests as aligned with, and served by, a Trump Presidency; that a central purpose of the Russian interference operations was helping the Trump campaign; and that the Trump campaign anticipated benefiting from the fruits of that foreign election interference. Mueller provides detailed evidence of multiple contacts by Russian government officials or their proxies with the Trump campaign to facilitate relationships. The report states: ‘‘[t]he investigation . . . established numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.’’ Ultimately, however, the special counsel’s investigation lacked sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Trump campaign or its associates conspired with the Russian Government in its election interference. As the report states: ‘‘[a]lthough the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.’’
As referenced earlier, a key question that Special Counsel Mueller needs to address during his testimony is why was the investigative team unable to establish to a criminal standard of proof that is ‘‘beyond a reasonable doubt’’ coordination between people associated with the Trump campaign, and Russian actors conspiring to undermine the U.S. elections. This raises questions related to the third set of issues for Special Counsel Mueller, namely whether the President obstructed justice in connection with the Russia-related investigation and hindered the ability of the special counsel’s office to gather relevant evidence. And if so, did that obstruction materially impede Mueller’s ability to conclude ‘‘beyond a reasonable doubt’’ that the Trump campaign or the President himself conspired with Russian interference? These questions raise profound issues for our national security and the integrity of our democracy, and the special counsel’s answers will determine what Congress’s next steps should be in meeting its constitutional responsibilities. Indeed, the Mueller report establishes multiple incidents in which the President committed acts that were capable of impeding the Trump-Russia investigation. For example, President Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to stop looking into his former National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn, after finding out that Flynn was questioned about his contacts with the Russian Ambassador. President Trump also repeatedly asked Comey to publicly say that Trump himself was not under investigation and then fired Comey when it became clear he was unwilling to do so.
In addition, the President tried several different tactics to have the special counsel’s investigation curtailed. President Trump initially put forward claims that the special counsel had conflicts of interest, which his advisers informed him were meritless. When that did not work, the President gave his subordinates—including White House Counsel Don McGahn, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski—direct orders to either have the special counsel removed or to pressure then-Attorney General Sessions into limiting the scope of the special counsel’s investigation to future election interference, instead of scrutinizing the President and his campaign’s conduct. McGahn, Lewandowski, and Priebus all failed to follow the President’s orders. The special counsel importantly notes that attempts ‘‘to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.’’
Furthermore, the special counsel’s report found that the President and his aides materially impaired the investigation. For instance, the President did not give an in-person interview to the special counsel and would only answer written questions that did not address issues relating to Presidential obstruction. In his written responses, the President replied that he could not recall or did not remember more than 30 times, covering the vast majority of the questions. In addition, numerous Trump campaign associates and others from his inner circle, including General Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, and Roger Stone, and his attorney Michael Cohen, lied about their dealings with Kremlin or Kremlin-linked actors. Michael Cohen, for example, admitted to the special counsel that among the reasons he lied to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project was to try and limit the ongoing Russia investigation. In each of these cases, the Mueller report found ‘‘those lies materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference.’’ Similarly, the special counsel found that Trump campaign associates frustrated the investigation by deleting information or otherwise impeding the ability of the special counsel to obtain relevant communications pertinent to the investigation. One example was Trump campaign associates’ communications with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian national whom the FBI assesses as having ties to Russian intelligence and who worked for Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s political consulting business for many years. During 2016, Manafort directed his campaign deputy Rick Gates to provide internal polling data to Kilimnik. Manafort expected Kilimnik to share that information with others in Ukraine and Putin crony Oleg Deripaska, who had funded pro-Kremlin political influence operations in the past. The Mueller report details that Gates used an encrypted app to send the polling data and then deleted it daily. As a result of deleted and encrypted communications and because of Manafort’s false statements, the special counsel was not able to determine what happened with this data and whether it was part of a coordinated effort between Russia and the Trump campaign to interfere in our election. The report makes clear that the lying, obfuscations, and denial of access to key information had a direct effect on the investigation’s ability to determine the nature and extent of any coordination by President Trump and his associates with Russian conspirators. What makes the Mueller’s testimony even more urgent are the Trump administration’s efforts to attack the credibility of the report and to prevent Congress from further investigating Mueller’s findings.
The White House has adopted a strategy of trying to block key witnesses named in the Mueller report from testifying before Congress, including Don McGahn, Annie Donaldson who served as chief of staff to White Counsel McGahn, and White House and Trump campaign communications director Hope Hicks, by invoking legally dubious or overly broad claims of privilege. The White House has also stymied Congress by asserting Executive privilege over the full, unredacted version of the report and the underlying documents and only providing access to a few select Members. It is not only the White House that has been trying to muddy the waters around the Mueller report. Attorney General William Barr has deliberately mischaracterized and increased partisan skepticism of the report. Before releasing the report to the public, Barr published a misleading summary of its findings, which the special counsel disputed. Barr also held a press conference where he claimed that the White House fully cooperated with the special counsel’s investigation, that the special counsel found ‘‘no collusion,’’ and that there was not sufficient evidence to establish obstruction of justice. These statements are favorable to the President, but none of them are consistent with the special counsel’s findings.
As I have laid out, despite the ongoing and increasingly sophisticated threat we face and despite the 2020 election being less than a year and a half away, we are still not prepared to defend against the inevitable Russian attack on our democracy. As Mueller said during his press conference on May 29, 2019, ‘‘I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments—that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interference in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.’’ I could not agree more. We cannot forget that Russia interfered in our election in 2016 with hybrid warfare tactics and tried to do it again in 2018. And our intelligence community assessed that it is poised to conduct additional operations against our elections in 2020 with increasing sophistication. We cannot ignore these attacks or wish them away. The impediments erected by the President and the people around him meant that despite the best efforts of the Mueller team, there remains unfinished business in getting to the bottom of what happened in 2016 and afterward, which is why it is critically important we hear from the special counsel. While it is an important step that the special counsel is testifying to the House in front of two committees, I am making this statement about the questions that should be asked of Mueller because, as of this moment, there are no scheduled hearings or plan for him to appear in the Senate. We should be holding hearings in the Senate with testimony from the special counsel and others on many issues, including the ones I have raised. We should be passing legislation, including on election security, to ensure that we are appropriately reorganized across government and society ahead of the elections in 2020 and beyond. Indeed, the administration needs to take election security seriously. That means being proactive. It also means finding ways to reassure the American people about the legitimacy and validity of our elections. For example, we could require the Secretary of Homeland Security, with the concurrence of the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI Director, to rapidly assess and inform the public about whether any foreign interference or influence is detected against our election process, procedures, and infrastructure. As Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul wrote in the Washington Post after the special counsel’s report was released: ‘‘the Mueller report is a good start, but it is only a start.’’ There is too much at stake for our national security and the integrity of democracy to stop now.