Surely Vladimir Putin is sitting in front of the fireplace in his dacha, enjoying a hearty laugh about those “silly Americans” sniping at each other over who’s getting the most help from Russia in the 2020 election.
It’s not that the situation isn’t serious — it is. It’s just that the Trump administration, now with a little help from Democratic presidential front-runner Bernie Sanders, has elevated the discussion to comic opera status. What’s needed is not political theater, but an aggressive response from lawmakers and greater transparency with the American public.
The public learned last week that members of the House Intelligence Committee were briefed by a senior official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that Russia was once again interfering in US elections, with the aim of helping reelect Donald Trump in 2020. The intelligence official was later identified as Shelby Pierson.
The president’s outraged response to learning Democrats had been briefed was to fire Pierson’s boss, acting director Joseph Maguire, replacing him at least temporarily with Richard Grenell, whose sole qualification for the job is his unabashed loyalty to Trump.
Then we learned that Democratic presidential candidate Sanders had been briefed by intelligence officials a month earlier about Russian interference aimed at boosting his primary candidacy. Sanders responded by berating his “friends” at the Washington Post for breaking this story just before the Nevada caucuses.
The Trump administration also went on the offensive: By Tuesday, unnamed intelligence officials were quoted by CNN as saying Pierson had overstated the intelligence community’s assessment, which was more “nuanced.”
There should be little doubt about the truth: Russia is attempting to interfere in the 2020 election, bolstered by its success in 2016.
The Mueller report certainly documented that. So too did the special counsel’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies, for, in the words of that indictment, “impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful government functions of the United States by dishonest means . . . to interfere with US political and electoral processes, including the 2016 US presidential election.”
No ambiguity there. Nor is there any ambiguity about the on-the-record testimony of FBI Director Christopher Wray, earlier this month before the House Judiciary Committee, on foreign influence operations at work here and designed to “spread disinformation, sow discord, push foreign nations’ policy agendas, and ultimately undermine confidence in our democratic institutions and values.”
Russia, among others, is “hoping to reach a wide swath of Americans covertly” by using “false personas and fabricated stories on social media platforms to discredit US individuals and institutions,” Wray said.
Their weapon of choice? “Spreading disinformation, leveraging economic resources, and escalating divisive issues.”
So rather than sit back and let the Russians — with an able assist from Iran and North Korea from time to time — manipulate yet another election season, what can actually be done?
This week, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer along with Senator Robert Menendez, ranking member on Foreign Relations, and Senator Sherrod Brown, the top Democrat on the Banking Committee, wrote a letter calling on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to impose sanctions on “all those responsible for ongoing elections interference, including President Putin,” the Russian government, and anyone “providing material or financial support.”
The tools, of course, are there, under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. It’s the political will that’s in question.
Consider, also, the new Canadian model, adopted prior to its 2019 elections, requiring an unprecedented level of transparency by all social media platforms of any political advertising on their sites, including online registries of such ads and who paid for them.
Beyond that, the Canadians also require a new level of transparency by their own intelligence officials. Rather than just holding secret briefings for a few select politicians — information inevitably leaked in whole or in part later — Canadian officials put what they know online for all to see. After all, what is the point of knowing something that important and not sharing it with one another and with every voter in real time?
That ought to be the model here. Surely US voters can be trusted with certain basics. But once again that requires not more or better intelligence but the political will to share it. And that seems unlikely to change until the occupant of the Oval Office or the Republican leadership in the Senate changes. In the meantime, the very mechanism to vote him out is at stake.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.