Trump Isn’t Protecting the U.S. From Future Russian Election Meddling, Senator Says

Updated | President Donald Trump isn’t doing anything to prevent Russia from trying to influence the 2018 elections—which the former Cold War adversaries will definitely try to do, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee said this week.

Senator Martin Heinrich, one of seven Democrats on the panel that's currently investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election, says not enough is being done to protect American democracy as the nation gears up for the crucial midterms.

“I have seen no indication and no desire from this administration to do anything,” Heinrich told Newsweek. “That begs the question, 'Why not?' I think all Americans want to trust that their president is willing to defend them against all foreign adversaries.”

The U.S. intelligence community concluded after the election that Russian hackers, likely backed by President Vladimir Putin, meddled "to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order" and had "a clear preference for President-elect Trump." But Trump has publicly denied Russian interference several times, at one point even saying that he accepted Putin's promise that he had nothing to do with meddling.

Worse, according to Heinrich, has been the Trump administration's response to the interference. Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified in October that the U.S. has not done much to improve defenses against future Russian meddling.

GettyImages-698701214 The telegenic Heinrich has been already touted as a 2020 presidential candidate. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“Probably not, we're not,” he said. “The matter is so complex that for most of us were not able to fully grasp the technical dangers that are out there.”

That approach is a problem because Russia will be back, experts and Heinrich say.

“This is a game that Russia plays in Eastern Europe all the time,” the first-term New Mexico Democrat said. “The Atlantic Ocean does not protect us in the age of digital information.”

Trump also appears to be bending to Putin's will, Heinrich said.

“At best we’re dealing with a situation here where Vladimir Putin is treating the president of the United States as an unwitting agent,” he added. "If that’s not the case then we’re certainly in a very dark place indeed.”

Like all members of the Intelligence Committee, Heinrich declined to discuss specifics of the panel's probe, but said that once the investigation is completed, he will be loud about its findings.

The methodical approach he's taking to the investigation has won him fans among those on the Intelligence Committee.

“Martin’s a thoughtful, intelligent senator," Senator Dianne Feinstein, former chair of the committee who serves alongside Heinrich, told Newsweek in an email. "Most recently he’s done very worthy work on election security issues and he’s been an invaluable member of the Russia investigation effort. He’s got a very bright future.”

The Vice Chairman of the committee, Senator Mark Warner, also had kind words about Heinrich.

“I’ve said that the Russia investigation may be the most important thing I ever do, and I consider myself very lucky to be working on it alongside someone as smart and as thoughtful as Martin Heinrich,” Warner told Newsweek. “He’s dedicated to real oversight – he always puts in the time, he’s always well-prepared – and he understands technology.”

Heinrich hasn't always been quiet, making a name for himself with some aggressive questioning of Sessions in June.

“You are obstructing that congressional investigation by not answering these questions,” Heinrich told the attorney general after he refused to answer a question about conversations with Trump. “I think your silence…speaks volumes.”

That tense exchange was picked up by just about every news network, but the goal, Heinrich said, was simply to get an honest answer.

“The way people answer, you get a sense for whether they’re being honest, sometimes by the pain you see on their face,” he said. “I think the public is pretty good about discerning those as well, which is why those open hearings are so valuable.”

The committee already has agreed to have Trump lawyer Michael Cohen appear for public testimony next year, and Heinrich is pushing to have Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, testify as well.

Citing the Trump administration's hands-off approach to Russia, Heinrich is working with Republicans Susan Collins and James Lankford, and Democrat Mark Warner, on a bill to better protect the election system.

“Rather than counseling patience, what I would tell people is that we have learned enough that there are actions we can, should and must take now, to make sure that we are better prepared for what is not going away,” he said.

One thing that's not going away is Heinrich himself. Pundits are already starting to mention the telegenic 46-year-old as a presidential candidate, though he says he has no intention of running. Yet.

“I am not planning, no," he told Newsweek. "Let’s just say no and leave it at that. If I change my mind you’ll be the first to know—well, after my wife.”

This article has been updated to include comment from Senator Mark Warner.

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