Attorney general Jeff Sessions, sparring with his former colleagues in testimony before the Senate intelligence committee, made a startling and dismaying admission on Tuesday. Despite months of turmoil surrounding Russia’s efforts to distort American elections, says Sessions, he neither received nor requested a classified briefing to get up to speed on the threat posed by Russian forces.
“I have to tell you Sen. King, I know nothing but what I’ve read in the paper,” Sessions said to Angus King of Maine. “I’ve never received any detailed briefing on how hacking occurred or how information was alleged to have influenced the campaign.”
That is an incredible statement, given the size and scope of the threat Russia posed to American democracy. We now know that Russian cyberattacks on US voting systems were much broader and deeper than previously believed, and included as many as 39 states, according to Bloomberg News.
Former FBI Director James Comey was blunt in his assessment of the situation during his own recent testimony to Congress.
“We’re talking about a foreign government that, using technical intrusion, lots of other methods, tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. And people need to recognize it,” Comey said.
Comey also testified that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election: “They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. And it was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government. There is no fuzz on that. That’s about as un-fake as you can possibly get and is very, very serious.”
That looming threat has already caused turmoil in the White House. Undisclosed meetings and business transactions with Russians — and false statements about those meetings — cost Gen. Michael Flynn his job as national security adviser to President Trump.
The White House is effectively under siege, coping with ongoing investigations by two congressional committees and a separate, independent counsel appointed by the Justice Department. President Trump and other top officials have hired private attorneys.
With all this legal and political turmoil, one would expect the nation’s top law enforcement official to exhibit at least enough curiosity to get the latest reliable information about this five-alarm threat to American democracy.
Instead, Sessions’ testimony reveals a shocking lack of action — or even curiosity — by Trump administration officials who should be organizing ways to defend US voting systems from outside attacks.
Sessions, outraged by insinuations he colluded with Russians to swing the 2016 elections, called the accusation a “detestable lie.” He has every right to defend his name.
But the White House’s troubles can’t be allowed to overshadow the larger crisis of a hostile power tampering with American elections. If Trump, Sessions and other White House officials want to quiet accusations of collusion, they should spend less time ducking questions from Congress and more time working with state- and county-level boards of election to detect and block future cyberattacks.
What on Earth are they waiting for?