Sen. Mark Warner: Trump's Inaction on Russia Is an 'Embarrassment'

The vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Mueller Investigation, Cambridge Analytica and Trump's tendency to do “unusual things”

Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, at his office in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington. Credit: Lexey Swall/The New York Times/Redux

Even with a flurry of indictments dropping on Donald Trump's former campaign advisors and other aides, the president continues to deny that Russia interfered in the 2016 election – at least, to help him and hurt Hillary Clinton – while sowing general discord in the electorate. On Tuesday, Trump acknowledged having personally congratulated Russian president Vladimir Putin on his reelection. And a week earlier, Republicans in the House abruptly ended their Russia investigation after releasing a "report" that contradicts the very intelligence of experts they're tasked with overseeing. "Heads of FBI, National Security and Director of the NSA have all said they've received no directions from the White House to make this a priority," says Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "I think that's an embarrassment."

Rolling Stone sat down with Sen. Warner to hear how the other congressional investigation is going. From his seventh floor office on Capitol Hill, Warner discussed the fallout from revelations that a "sketchy firm" working with the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, secretly collected data on 50 million Facebook users to target voters ("Zuckerberg as well as the other CEO's of the social media companies," Warner says, "owe an explanation to policy makers."). His committee released a report this week that recommends, among other things, updating critical election software to deter future intrusions. "It doesn't mean it's going to be Russia next time," he says. "It could be another foreign entity or it could be a group of terrorists or it could be a group of hackers that are simply hacking into systems." And on the ongoing investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the president's increased criticisms of the Mueller probe, Warner says, "We're in very dangerous territory here. I think, potentially constitutional crisis territory. So far, most of my colleagues in the Senate, Republican colleagues, have said it would be crazy for this president to fire Mueller, but the one thing about this president is he is – he does unusual things."

What's the most important takeaway from the Russia investigation to date?
Russia massively intervened in our elections. They hacked both political parties, released information to help Mr. Trump and hurt Clinton. They scanned or hacked into 21 states' electoral systems and they found ways to use social media in an unprecedented way in terms of not just political advertising, but more specifically creation of fake accounts that spread misinformation and disinformation and they did this in a way that was extraordinarily cheap and good value for them and they've taken these same tactics now and used them in western democracies' elections all across Europe and across the rest of the world.

What do you think of President Trump's continued insistence that nothing happened?
President Trump, I try to give him the benefit of the doubt, but for someone who says there's no there there, he continually tries to interfere in the Mueller investigation. His failure to acknowledge this threat means that we're not as secure as we should be in terms of election security that's why the Congress this week in our Senate Intelligence Committee acted in a bipartisan way to say every vote in 2018 ought to have a paper ballot or paper auditable trail. This new spending bill has $386 million of additional funds to help states do these kind of audits and evaluations and we want to hear from the CEO's of the social media companies like Facebook and Twitter and others because this was an attack on our democracy and the fact that the president refuses to acknowledge it and instead puts together, as Senator McCain called it, a congratulatory call to a dictator about a sham election in Russia. John McCain's words, not mine, but I think it accurately describes the President's call. Really inappropriate."

And now the President keeps lashing out at Mueller. Are you worried that he could fire him?
I've been worried for months and have gone repeatedly to the floor and constantly appealled to my colleagues. Nobody's above the law and the Mueller investigation as well as the Senate investigation have got to be allowed to continue and follow the facts. Whatever the truth is, it needs to come out. The president's comments about the Mueller investigation – the president and his allies' comments about the integrity of the FBI and the Justice Department – we're in very dangerous territory here. I think, potentially constitutional crisis territory. So far, most of my colleagues in the Senate, Republican colleagues, have said it would be crazy for this president to fire Mueller, but the one thing about this president is he is – he does unusual things."

Do you want to see legislation to protect him?
I would've liked to have seen legislation included in the spending bill. I think, probably the House pushed back against that, but the most important [thing] is just to make sure that the word goes out that firing Mueller is a red line that cannot and should not be crossed. I would argue as well, firing further individuals like Rod Rosenstein who oversees Mueller, or if the president starts going out and pardoning individuals who've been charged by Mueller or potentially might be charged, even including family members. That would again show that he's trying to be above the law.

Facebook's been under fire for leaking the data of tens of millions of people to Cambridge Analytica. What role does Congress have in protecting people's data?
I first called out Facebook and some of the social media platforms in December of 2016. For the first six months the companies kind of blew off any of these allegations, but these proved to be true that Russia used their social media platforms with fake accounts to spread false information. They paid for political advertising on their platforms and now we see evidence that this pretty sketchy firm, Cambridge Analytica, used a Russian-British academic to access originally a couple hundred thousand Facebook followers who volunteered to take a survey, but when they volunteered to take a survey that exposed literally tens-of-millions, up to 50 million of their friends who this Cambridge Analytica firm got access to. Now, Facebook says those tactics are no longer allowed, that they kicked this firm off their site, but I think they've got a lot of explaining to do. I want to see Mark Zuckerberg as well as the other CEO's of the social media companies. They owe an explanation to policy makers, but they also more importantly owe an explanation to the public and that means more than simply doing one TV interview."

Zuckerberg has apologized, but it sounds like you're saying that's not enough?
We're in an area of the wild wild west where, on social media, it's been totally unregulated and that's brought a lot of innovation. My background is as a tech guy, I want to see that innovation continue, but just as we've seen the value from social media, we've also seen now the dark underbelly and I think Americans deserve to know if they're seeing a political ad, is that actually being sponsored by an American or is it being sponsored by a foreign government? If somebody is misrepresenting themselves on one of these platforms and says they're John Smith, but it's actually Borris from St. Petersburg, I think Americans ought to have that knowledge. And we're still trying to wrestle with how we deal with these fake accounts when the next wave of technology will allow videos to be placed where an individual's face will be put on a different person's body or someone like myself who's been in the public arena for some time, they'll be able to real-time have words come out of my mouth that have nothing to do with what I'm actually saying. This is going to get scarier and scarier. And Facebook and Twitter and Google- they need to work with us because if they don't, you might see inappropriate regulation or you could see the confidence of their users be lost which could lead to serious economic decline for those companies."

What did you think last time when these firms just sent their lawyers up and didn't come with their CEO's?
Their lawyers did a pretty good job last time of avoiding answering the real questions and we've gotten a lot more information since then and now we've seen these examples where Facebook knew two years ago about Cambridge Analytica accessing these 50 million users and for whatever reason wasn't forthcoming. We need to see the CEO's. They need to explain to the American public what's going on and how we're going to make sure that this data is more secure going forward and how these platforms are not abused by foreign agents because now we've seen Russia's ability to do this relatively cheaply. It doesn't mean it's going to be Russia next time. It could be another foreign entity or it could be a group of terrorists or it could be a group of hackers that are simply hacking into systems. And in the age where we've also seen the rise, for example, of cryptocurrencies – the ability to hack into vulnerable systems and then be paid by cryptocurrencies by cybercriminals – that threat has gone up exponentially. So, all of these areas that used to be separated – misinformation, disinformation, actual privacy of personal data, cybersecurity – they're all blending together and it is going to take, I think, a forward leaning mindset to both keep innovation, but also protect people.

Can you ensure American voters that these problems have been solved ahead of the 2018 midterms or are we just not there yet?
Well, the fact that the head of the FBI, the Director of National Intelligence, the head of the NSA have all indicated they believe Russia will be back and we've seen evidence of that and that frankly in terms of misinformation, Russia did not stop in November of 2016. They have continued to sow dissension from things like some of the shootings even to the questions around the NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, trying to just cause chaos. The fact that those heads of FBI, National Security and Director of the NSA have all said they've received no directions from the White House to make this a priority, I think that's an embarrassment and I don't think we have that level of security. So, I'm proud of the fact that the Senate Intelligence Committee has got bipartisan recommendations. That's going to be in a legislative form. I hope it will pass quickly. Today's budget bill did include $386 million to help increase election security, but I would be very worried in any state that didn't have an auditable paper trail. I would be very worried if we'd not done the backup of the private vendors who manage the voter files in an area that is very vulnerable. You can't mandate rules, but you need best practices. Think about campaigns. We saw campaigns were hacked into in 2015 and 2016. Campaigns are the ultimate startups and often times when you're starting a campaign, you don't think about security. You're trying to figure out how to get your candidate elected, but if your candidate and campaign is penetrated by foreign adversaries or others, we've got a lot of problems because at the end of the day the Russians or others don't actually have to change votes, they just have to increase Americans doubts about the integrity of our election system."

What's next for the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Russian investigation?
We now have our recommendations out about election security. We hope that will become legislated and passed by the Congress. We hope we can keep putting pressure on making the Department of Homeland Security work with state electoral boards so that people have the appropriate security clearances. We also need to now move into the realm of how we grapple with the question around social media and what our recommendations are around there and then we will still have a lot of questions about what level of collusion or collaboration might have taken place between Russians and individuals connected with the Trump campaign. We have evidence from Mr. Mueller's indictments and even from Mr. Trump's son that clearly the Russians were offering information and there was interest in receiving that information, but I'm going to reserve my final judgement until we have a chance to talk to all of our witnesses and we've still got more people we need to talk to.

And part of it, are you waiting for Mueller, letting him take the lead on some of this?
We're trying to figure out and inform the American public from a counter intelligence position how this doesn't happen again and whether there was collaboration or collusion that took place in the 2016 campaign. Mueller is doing a criminal investigation. He obviously has a lot more tools at his disposal so we're separate investigations. We don't coordinate. His needs to continue. Ours needs to continue, not only to make sure we know what happened looking backwards, but how to make sure it doesn't happen ever again in the future.

The Republicans in the House Intelligence Committee have closed their investigation. What do you make of that? It seems like it really deteriorated into very partisan bickering.
I'm not going to comment about what happened or didn't happen in the House. I am proud of the fact that in the Senate we've kept this on the tracks pointed towards where the facts are going to lead us and that we had broad bipartisan support on our first set of recommendations around election security.