In the News
New York Times
Nicolas Fandos and Catie Edmondson
Faced with new evidence that Russian hackers are targeting conservative American research groups and the Senate’s own web pages, key lawmakers from both parties signaled on Tuesday that they were ready to move forward with punishing new sanctions legislation capable of crippling the Russian economy.
And in three separate hearings on Capitol Hill, senators prodded the Trump administration to do more with its existing authorities to deter Russia and protect the United States’ political infrastructure.
“Congress is going to act; you might as well know that,” Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, predicted in a meeting of the Banking Committee, which oversees sanctions law. “I’d rather it act in a way that has your insights about what would be helpful, but if you fail to provide insights then we will provide you with a law that ultimately takes place without your insights.”
But administration officials argued that the current sanctions regime provided all the authority they needed, and they dismissed concerns that President Trump’s equivocation on questions of Russian interference had harmed their efforts.
“If you look at the wide range of activities that this administration has undertaken under the direction of the president, including the very significant sanctions that we have been able to launch, including the expulsion of 60 Russians out of our country, including the closing of Russian entities in the United States, what Russia sees is a United States that is very aggressively targeting malign activity,” Sigal P. Mandelker, a senior Treasury Department official, told the Banking Committee.
The senators’ pleas took on more urgency after Microsoft Corporation revealed on Monday that it had detected and seized websites that were created in recent weeks by hackers linked to the Russian military intelligence unit formerly known as the G.R.U. The sites appeared meant to trick people into thinking they were clicking through links managed by the conservative Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute, but were secretly redirected to web pages created by the hackers to steal passwords and other credentials.
Both institutions have taken aim at Russian corruption, and on Tuesday the Hudson Institute said in a statement that was not the first time an authoritarian government had targeted its work, nor did it expect it to be the last. Microsoft also found websites imitating the United States Senate, but not specific offices or political campaigns.
Those revelations came less than a month after Facebook disclosed that it had identified a new, active political influence campaign targeting November’s midterm elections on its network that showed signs of Russian handiwork.
“To Republicans, if you think the Russians don’t have you in mind, you are making a great mistake,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said as he led a hearing of the Judiciary subcommittee focused on election security. “They are trying to undermine the democratic process.”
On Tuesday, the Treasury Department announced a new round of sanctions targeting ships delivering Russian oil to North Korea despite sanctions and marine companies that are supplying Russia’s military. Ms. Mandelker said to expect additional designations in the coming weeks.
But senators were skeptical of the administration’s actions. They questioned the effectiveness of sanctions passed overwhelmingly last year to target Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors, and tried to solicit input from the officials on how to proceed. And with the latest targets being conservative groups, concern could spread.
Mr. Graham said efforts to deter Russia had clearly fallen short and called on party leaders to move quickly.
Even Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said he was “personally very interested” in additional bipartisan sanctions legislation, but he cautioned that there may not be time to fully consider it before the election.
“The chances of sandwiching that in, honestly, in the month of September with all the other items we have swirling around, is probably pretty slim, but we will be here longer this year,” Mr. McConnell told reporters. “It would be high on the list for consideration for floor time.”
Top intelligence and law enforcement officials have repeatedly warned that Russia remains active in American politics and has targeted the midterm elections. All senators were scheduled to receive an additional classified briefing on Wednesday from the homeland security secretary, the director of national intelligence and the F.B.I. director about the Russian threat and what is being done to blunt it.
The report from Microsoft sharpened the warnings. It said that the company had identified and shut down several websites linked to a Russian military intelligence unit that set out to influence the 2016 American elections.
Amid those warnings and the fallout from Mr. Trump’s July summit meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, senators from both parties have been anxiously debating how to raise the pressure on Moscow.
Two approaches dominate the discussion.
Senators Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, have drafted legislation to deter Russia from further interference, putting the Kremlin on notice that the United States will enact broad economic sanctions if it does not stand down before the November elections.
The competing bill, written by Mr. Menendez and Mr. Graham, would seek to immediately drop a package of what they call “crushing” new punishments on the country for actions already underway.
The Banking Committee appeared ready to sort through the differences.
“It’s not often that Congress acts together in such a strong manner, as marked by such near-unanimous votes” last year, said Senator Michael D. Crapo, Republican of Idaho, the committee’s chairman. “But then, Russia is a menace on so many different levels today that Congress can be compelled to act with a single voice to find solutions that will protect America and democratic values across the world.”
Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the committee’s top Democrat, was more forceful, calling the latest denial by the Kremlin “nonsense” and insisting that Mr. Trump do the same.
“Our government — the president and Congress together — must right now send a more powerful and direct message to Putin and those within his circles: We know what you’re doing, it must stop and if you continue, you and your government will pay a dear price,” he said.
The hearings were combative at times, with senators venting that administration officials were dodging simple questions.
“One of the things I thought would come from this hearing is a recommendation or a set of recommendations of what Congress might consider legislatively for additional sanctions,” Senator Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas, said at the Banking Committee hearing. “Am I to take from your unwillingness to answer that kind of question that there is opposition by the administration to additional sanctions?”
Ms. Mandelker would not give a straight answer, repeatedly telling senators that the Treasury Department had the authority it needed.
In the Foreign Relations Committee, senators were clearly frustrated with what they said was a lack of progress in curbing Russian behavior.
“Why, given all the things we are doing, are we not making better progress?” asked Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio. “I think sanctions are necessary,” he continued, but “it’s obviously not working the way we’d like. What would be more effective?”
A. Wess Mitchell, an assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, replied that “the chilling effect on the Russian economy has been significant and measurable.”
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