Eric Swalwell on Mueller report: We Finally Find out How Much Rot There Is | Opinion

Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-CA) meets guests during an event at the Iowa City Public Library on February 18, 2019 in Iowa City, Iowa. Scott Olson/Getty Images

California's 15th District is tucked between San Jose and San Francisco in San Joaquin Valley, stretches across mountains and valleys to the Bay. It is home to the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Eric Swalwell. The 38-year-old Congressman has become one of the most recognizable faces of the Russia investigation conducted by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), and has been a consistently outspoken critic of the Trump administration, its contacts with Russia, and its attempts to obstruct justice.

I first met Representative Swalwell in the spring of 2017, when he invited me to Washington D.C. to brief his colleagues on HPSCI on my experience working with the FBI against the Russian GRU military intelligence agency. In those early days, Swalwell, like most of America was trying to understand exactly what happened in the run-up to the 2016 elections. Now, two years later, with the Mueller report complete and released, I had the chance to speak with him again and get his reaction. His answers have been edited for brevity.

Q: The Mueller Report was released yesterday. There is much focus on the obstruction component, but with your intelligence background, what do you make of the national security implications?

A: I read the 200 collusion pages closely, but my intelligence background led me first to the collusion section. I look at it like this, the obstruction is important in that the President has to be held accountable for his actions, however, the collusion and related activity is what I see as imminent. This is like having termites in your house and we've just found out finally how much rot there is. The campaign, the family, the business, the transition in the administration all approached by Russians? It was eye-opening.

Q: How do you think the report compares to Barr's letter and what he said in his press conference?

A: I think you can either be the Attorney General for all of us, or you can be the president's lawyer. Barr's chosen to be the president's lawyer, which means he shouldn't be the attorney general anymore. He mischaracterized the report in many ways. It's misleading to say that there's no evidence of collusion, that's just not the case. Even if there is no case beyond a reasonable doubt, that does not mean there was no wrongdoing. I mean, the fact that Congress in the past did not imagine that something like this could happen and therefore didn't write laws to prohibit this kind of conduct, doesn't mean that we want to see this happen again.

Q: To that end, as a former prosecutor when there is a lack of evidence to bring charges, does that necessarily mean that the person is exonerated?

A: So, as a prosecutor there were times, a lot of times, I would have to dismiss a case and then the defense attorney would ask for essentially a declaration of innocence. I would rarely agree to that, because it would be admitting that there was nothing there. And often times a plea deal was made or charges were dropped so that they were held responsible in other fashion. Or in this case where no charges were brought at all it doesn't mean that the investigation wasn't warranted. You shouldn't tell a future investigator, "Hey if you see something like this, don't investigate it." I mean, I don't think anyone thinks that that's what someone should do in the future.

Q: If Russia was successful in any part of their operation to interfere with the 2016 election, do you think that U.S. intelligence either failed to detect the operation or did not have the tools to stop it?

A: I think we didn't appreciate the threat and Russian determination. So, in that way, I don't think we appreciated how vulnerable we were to something like this and we didn't appreciate how determined an adversary would be. And, I've always just believed that we have just have not had enough Intelligence community resources devoted to countering influence operations because we've seen them, not just in the United States. Russia is doing this across the globe. So, we have to be honest with ourselves as to with what we failed to see and the failures to respond. Once we did find out what they were doing we also, I think, chose the wrong direction. Do you acknowledge it, or do you call them out publicly, or do you not say anything because you don't want to reinforce Donald Trump's claim of the election as being rigged? What I heard in our investigation was that Obama administration officials didn't want to play into Donald Trump's claims that the election was being rigged. And so, that almost allowed Russia to run up the score, essentially.

Q: Does Russia's efforts to interfere with the 2016 election justify prioritizing this type of activity as a threat, and perhaps justify an increase in funding to counter intelligence?

A: So, at the bare minimum we have to do more in 2020 than we did in 2016. Right now we are actually doing less than we did in 2016. The president and Republicans have zeroed out the election security budget and I don't see election interference or, counter interference being a priority for this administration. He can't even acknowledge that Russia did this. He can't even acknowledge that they sought to help him. How are we going to protect this from happening again and, as you and I have said so often, Naveed, it's not just Russia—right?

There are other countries who have these capabilities and probably just chose not to do it probably fearing what their retribution would be and now they see "well there's no retribution." What would stop someone else from trying to play in our elections?

That's my biggest fear from this: that we walk away from this report without being
determined to stop Russia from continuing to do this, because there's no sign that they are stopping. We have to make sure that every country in the world knows that you can't do this. I don't think we can weather another attack like this on our democracy. I mean this has absolutely torn us apart. It has turned us against each other. The Russians continue to get dividends off of this investment every single day and we need to finally unite and that's not the President saying that they did this. It has to be Republicans and Congress finally stepping up and saying, "We are not going to let anyone do this to us again. We are going to hold accountable those that work at them and where there were gaps in the law, where the law had not caught up with the intent of these actors on the outside or on the inside we are going to make sure that the law catches up."

Q: Do you think that if a foreign intelligence service offers a candidate or campaign information, they have an ethical or moral duty to report that contact?

A: I wrote legislation last year called Duty to Report. It puts a duty on any candidate, candidate's immediate family member or candidate's campaign aide, if they're approached by an agent of a foreign power, who's offering illicitly obtained information, you have to tell the FBI. Again, that would cover a lot of what this report lays out. Which is, so many of them were offered this illicitly obtained information or they were offered these bizarre suggestions that Putin and Trump should get together and they didn't tell anybody. I just think the standards should be higher, considering what's at stake.

Q: Just to clarify that, do you think we should have a law to tell people what's an ethical duty as a citizen? Especially if running for elected office?

A: I used to not think so. Clearly, they didn't break existing laws but my test for this is who reads the 200 pages outlining collusion evidence and says, "Well that's ok if that happens again." I don't think anyone would.

Q: Clearly, Russia and intelligence is important to you, but your presidential campaign is running heavily on gun reform. Why is this an important issue to you?

A: Yeah, so one, I don't think enough is being done to protect kids in their classrooms and I believe it's an issue that has to be a top priority for the next president. We can't just respond to the latest shooting. We actually need someone who is going to lead and make this a first 100 days issue. I also approach this fearlessly, because I have taken a diagnostic of our country. I went to 26 states in the last two years for the midterms, including conservative states and I've come to find that we are falsely told that this is a divisive issue only as a tactic to keep us from doing anything about it. It's only divisive for a very vocal tweeting, bullying minority who wants it to be divisive so that they can hold on to dangerous weapons and not be accountable for the unrestricted weaponry that's in our community and I think I've called their bluff. I don't think it's divisive. I think the moms and the students, and people who want safety in their churches and shopping malls and theaters are with me.

Q: What do you propose as a solution? It would appear that politically, any attempt at a proposal is met with fierce resistance.

A: That's what frustrates me. After all of these shootings we just keep negotiating down. We've gone from,
"Well let's just have background checks?"
"Well at least let's say if you are on a terror watchlist you can't buy a gun?"
"No, The NRA says that's divisive."
"Well at least let's ban bump stocks?"
"No they don't want to do that."
So, we just keep going down when we actually should be going up, in the way we negotiate.

Q: Last question. The presidential Democratic field is getting crowded, with a number of women and people of color running. How do you respond to those who say 2020 should be a time for them to run?

A: No one's identity should keep them from running. But I know that life experience is important, and as a white man, there are times when I can't speak on an issue and the right thing to do is pass the mic to someone who can—I'm ready to do that.

Naveed Jamali spent three years working undercover for the FBI against Russian military intelligence. He tells the story in his book "How to Catch a Russian Spy."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​