January 15, 2020

Van Hollen Requests Unanimous Consent to Move Forward on DETER Act

Today, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen requested Unanimous Consent that the Senate take up his bipartisan legislation, the DETER Act, to prevent Russia from interfering in U.S. elections. The Senator’s remarks, as delivered on the Senate floor, are below. Video of his remarks may be found here.

Thank you, Mr. President.

At this particular moment in our history, we are witnessing the convergence of three events. Tomorrow, the Senate will likely be sworn in for the impeachment trial of President Trump. One of the articles of impeachment that will be coming over from the House relates to the President's abuse of power. The charge that he has used the power and prestige of the office of the Presidency to, among other things, withhold vital U.S. security assistance to the Ukraine in order to pressure them to announce an investigation into Burisma, Hunter Biden, and possibly Joe Biden in an attempt to get Ukraine to interfere in the upcoming 2020 election on behalf of President Trump. Now Mr. President, I'm not here today to go into issues directly related to that trial. It is vitally important that we get relevant witnesses, that we get relevant documents, and that we have a fair trial and get to the truth.

The second event that we learned about just this week, that relates to the impeachment trial, was that Russian military hackers broke into the Burisma computers in Ukraine, using the same phishing techniques that the GRU – that’s the Russian military intelligence – used to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters servers during the 2016 presidential elections. And all the evidence points to another attempt by Vladimir Putin using his military GRU hackers to interfere in an American election – this time in the 2020 election.

Mr. President, I don't know what's going to happen during the election on November 3rd of this year. Obviously each of us has our hopes as to what the result will be, but that's not the purpose of my being here on the floor today. My focus today is on what should unite all of us in this body – that should unite all 100 United States Senators. And that is that we should all agree that it's outrageous for any foreign power to interfere in an American election the way Russia interfered in our elections in 2016. And that it would be equally outrageous for us – knowing that that is Russia's intent in 2020 – to sit here and not do anything to protect the integrity of our democracy.

Look, we all know what happened in 2016. Just to refresh our memories, it was the unanimous conclusion of all U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. That was the unanimous conclusion of the leaders of intelligence agencies appointed by President Trump. It was also the bipartisan verdict of the Senate Intelligence Committee who painstakingly documented the fact that election systems in all 50 of our states were targeted to one degree or another by Russian hackers in the 2016 elections.

In fact, we know from the outcome of the Mueller investigation that led to the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence individuals, members of the GRU, they were indicted because of their interference in the 2016 elections. And we also know that Vladimir Putin and the Russians intend to interfere in our elections again in 2020. We know that because of the revelations this week about the actions the GRU has taken with respect to Burisma – same fingerprint, same techniques. But we also know that from our own U.S. intelligence agencies, who in November of last year all got together to issue a warning that Russia was going to interfere again in 2020.

Mr. President, I’m holding in my hand a joint statement from the leaders of US intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and what they say is that our adversaries – and they point to Russia -- will seek to interfere in the voting process or influence voter perceptions. This document is not about the past. This document is not about 2016. This document is about the here and now and the November 2020 elections. And this is – again – from the heads of our intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies who have been appointed by President Trump. So now we have overwhelming evidence that Russia interfered in 2016. We have overwhelming evidence and predictions that Russia will interfere again in our elections in 2020. And so we clearly are facing an immediate danger to the integrity of our elections and the integrity of our democracy. It's like we have a Russian missile in the air right now headed toward our election integrity systems and our electoral process. That's what the intelligence agencies are telling us right now. We learned the hard way in 2016, and now it's happening all over again.

So Mr. President, the question is – for this body – when you know something is happening, what are you going to do about it? And there are two things that we should be doing about it. We should be working to strengthen our election systems here at home – to harden them – to make it more difficult for Russian military intelligence to hack into them. We should be working with social media companies to prevent the Russian government and their agents from spending money on advertising on social media or using other techniques on social media to influence American voters. So we need to be doing all that. We have appropriated some funds to do that. We should be doing more than we have.

But Mr. President, the best defense is a good offense. We can and should spend money to strengthen and protect our election systems. But that's not enough because it's kind of like the arms race. We will work to try to better strengthen and protect those systems, and the hackers who are trying to get in will develop new techniques to try to get around them – and it's an endless cycle. That doesn't mean we shouldn't harden them. We should. But that's not enough to protect the integrity of our elections. We have to apply the principle that the best defense is a good offense and make it clear upfront to Vladimir Putin and Russia that the costs of interfering in another American election far outweigh the benefits. That's what we need to do. Because right now it's absolutely cost-free to Vladimir Putin to mess around in our elections. In fact, it's a big benefit to Vladimir Putin and the Russians. That's why they do it.

What do they accomplish? Well, first of all, they succeed in dividing Americans against one another. They succeed in undermining public confidence in the outcome of our elections. And that's part of their overall strategy to try to undermine democracies -- whether here in the United States or in Europe or other places around the world. And maybe they also succeed ultimately in weighing in and helping their preferred candidate in an election. But the point is right now – if you're Putin – there is zero cost to getting caught interfering in our elections and lots of perceived benefits by Vladimir Putin.

And so that's why more than two years ago, Senator Marco Rubio and I introduced the bipartisan DETER Act. And there are many other Senators – both Democrats and Republicans – who are on that bill. And the DETER Act is very straightforward. It would enact into law a very straightforward proposition. It says to Russia – and also to other countries, but the main attack seems to be coming from Russia – it says to Putin and Russia: if we catch you again interfering in our elections, there will be immediate and very harsh penalties for you to pay. This will happen virtually automatically. So Vladimir Putin will know upfront if our intelligence agencies catch them again – which they're likely to do – then he will finally pay a price for interfering in our elections and trying to undermine our democratic processes.

And these are not sanctions against a couple of Putin's pals. These are not sanctions against a couple oligarchs. These would be sanctions against major sectors of the Russian economy – state-owned banks, state-owned parts of their energy industry. So their economy would take a big hit if we catch them attacking our democracy once again. And that's absolutely appropriate because what Putin is doing is undermining faith and confidence in our democratic process, and we need to make it clear up front there is a big price to pay – not because we want those sanctions to go into effect, but because we don't. That of course is the entire idea behind deterrence. You raise the costs –  you raise the price on Putin and Russia to the point that it's no longer worth it to interfere in our elections. So that's why Senator Rubio and I introduced this legislation two years ago. We hoped it would be in place before the 2018 midterm elections, but that date has passed, and still here we are in the United States Senate, having failed to adopt this bipartisan legislation.

Now, I was right here on the floor of the Senate just a few months ago when we were debating the NDAA – the National Defense Authorization Act. And I asked for a vote to include the essential provisions of the DETER Act in the Defense Authorization bill. Because it makes a lot of sense that in a bill that’s supposed to defend the United States, we include a provision to defend the integrity of our democracy and electoral system against Russian attack or any other attack. And apparently every single Senator in this body agreed because it passed unanimously. So the Senate went on record unanimously saying that we should include provisions like the DETER Act – to deter Russian interference in our elections – in the NDAA. So then we're in negotiations on the NDAA, and it turns out that in the back rooms, behind closed doors, the Trump Administration gets Republican Senators to insist on throwing that provision out of the NDAA bill. This was one of the matters that was discussed until the final stages of negotiations on the NDAA. And apparently the Majority Leader and other Republican Senators, at the behest of the Trump Administration, said no – said no to a provision that had been agreed to unanimously by this body to help protect our elections by deterring Russian interference.

The question is why? Why – when our own intelligence agencies are telling us that Russia is planning to do in 2020 what they did in 2016 – would Republican Senate leaders block a provision that lets Putin know: you will be punished if you do that again. You will be punished if you attack our democracy. And I haven't gotten a straight answer to that question. Why not? Why not include that provision?

Clearly, there are Senators who don't want to build up our defenses and deterrence against Russian interference in our elections. So when we failed to get that into the NDAA, I came to the Senate floor, and I asked for unanimous consent to bring up the bipartisan DETER Act. Because every one of the Senators in this body had voted – or said through lack of objection – that they wanted the DETER Act in the NDAA, so I brought up the bill for unanimous consent passing here. Well, the Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee came to the floor and objected. And we had a back-and-forth conversation about the DETER Act.

Now yesterday, I was planning to come to this floor and, again, ask for unanimous consent to take up the DETER Act. But we heard from the Chairman of the Banking Committee that he wanted to find a way to get this done. And so I'm going to take the Chairman of the Banking Committee up on that offer, and I hope we can get it done. But I want to be really clear. If we're not able to work this out in a smart, straightforward way, which is what the bill does right now – as I said, it's got strong bipartisan support right now – then I will be back on the Senate floor regularly to ask for unanimous consent. And any other Senator that wants to come down here and object can do that. That's their right. But I'm going to keep pushing this issue because the clock is ticking. Every day that passes – while we know from our own intelligence agencies that Russia plans to interfere in the 2020 election, and we don't do anything about it – we are grossly negligent. And I want Senators who are not going to support that to come here in the light of day and let the American public know that they're blocking that effort. I hope we don't have to do that. I hope we can work this out. I hope we can pass the legislation – the bipartisan legislation – that's been sitting in the United States Senate for over two years now, as we get warning, after warning, after warning, that Vladimir Putin, the GRU, and the Russians intend to interfere in our democratic process again and attack the integrity of our electoral system.

Let's get this done, Mr. President. Let's protect our democracy. Let's make it clear in advance to Putin that the price he will pay for trying to interfere in our democracy will be much higher than any benefit he expects to gain.

And I yield back my time.