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Key Takeaways From Mueller's Testimony Before The House Intelligence Committee


Well, for all of the attention on the Washington politics associated with the special counsel investigation, Robert Mueller also ran one of the most important counterintelligence investigations of all time. That was the focus of his second hearing in Congress today with the House Intelligence Committee. It also took place against the backdrop of the current presidential election. And to talk more about that, we are joined by NPR national security editor Phil Ewing. Hey, Phil.


SHAPIRO: Did we learn anything new today about intelligence or election security specifically from Robert Mueller's testimony?

EWING: It was new to hear the things we heard from Mueller. You know, a lot of us are familiar with his work. A lot of our listeners have read his report. But the things Mueller said today he's already said in print, so there wasn't much new content there. But this was a chance to get a synopsis from the horse's mouth.

One of the most important takeaways was the point that came up when Mueller was talking with Texas Republican Congressman Will Hurd about election interference not being just a history for - excuse me - not just being an issue for the history books - how it's taking place even now.


ROBERT MUELLER: They're doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.

SHAPIRO: They being the Russians who interfered in 2016.

EWING: Correct.

SHAPIRO: The question is what'll Congress do about 2020? There's been a lot of talk concerning an election security bill. Did Mueller move the needle on that today?

EWING: He addressed it at a very high level. He said that intelligence and law enforcement agencies should coordinate better in terms of responding, and some of that is already taking place. The Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said on Friday he's appointing an election security czar within the intelligence community whose job that is going to be. But there also have been a number of proposals in Congress for some kind of legislation that might also change the law ahead of the election next year.

SHAPIRO: It seems like the challenge with a high-level election security czar is that elections are really run at the state and local county level. So what kinds of proposals have there been, and would they actually make a big difference?

EWING: That's right. Well, one proposal is to restrict the way social media networks can operate or what declarations they have to make because of the role they played in social media agitation in 2016.

One proposal is mandating that every ballot that's cast in the United States has to have a paper backup of some kind. There are still some jurisdictions that only use electronic systems that could be hacked in a worst-case scenario.

Another proposal would mandate that if a campaign makes contact with any kind of foreign operatives in the way that Mueller documented that Trump's campaign did in 2016, it would have to affirmatively report that to authorities, which Trump's campaign did not do.

We're already hearing from Democrats. We have a press release from them even now about their attempt to use this to continue to generate momentum for some kind of new bill. But it's too soon for us to say as we sit here right now where the state of play might change following this testimony.

SHAPIRO: There was a well-documented attack on American election integrity in 2016. Mueller today called it one of the biggest threats to American democracy in his time in public life. Why isn't there more bipartisan support for the kinds of measures you're describing?

EWING: Well, one reason is that the skeptics think the government is already doing a pretty good job. The Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the administration did a great job securing the 2018 midterm elections. There was no aftereffects of the kind that we saw in 2016 in his view.

And he also has a philosophical objection to what he calls federalizing elections. As you mentioned, these take place mostly at the state and local level. He doesn't want, in his view, Washington issuing some kind of new dictate or putting out some kind of new mandate ahead of Election Day in 2020.

So although we can't say whether Mueller day is going to change McConnell's mind or change the state of play in Congress, we can say, and Mueller said today, that this may just be the way the game is played now. In fact, here's what he said; I hope this is not the new normal, but I fear it is.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR national security editor Phil Ewing. Thanks for coming to the studio today.

EWING: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.
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