The New York Times reported last week that U.S. intelligence officials warned lawmakers in a private briefing that Russia is once again engaging in U.S. election interference. A day later, the Washington Post had a related report on Moscow's active involvement in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The developments touched off a political fight about the rationale behind Vladimir Putin's interest in the 2020 cycle and the Kremlin's possible motivations. Was Russia again trying to help Donald Trump? Is it trying to help Bernie Sanders? Would Moscow try to boost the Vermont senator because Putin sees Sanders as a candidate Trump could defeat?
And while questions like these are no doubt important, there was a bigger-picture question hanging over the dispute: is the Trump administration prepared to actually do anything about the fact that Russia, once again, appears to be targeting our democracy?
Late yesterday, three Senate Democratic leaders -- Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), and Senate Banking Committee Ranking Member Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) -- wrote a joint letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The lawmakers seemed eager to remind the cabinet secretaries that, in light of U.S. intelligence, the administration could start immediately punishing Putin's government.
"We write in the wake of widespread public reports about the renewed concerns and conclusions of the US Intelligence Community that the government of the Russian Federation continues to engage in widespread, systematic election interference designed to change the outcome of the 2020 Presidential elections. In light of this information, we urge you to immediately and forcefully impose sanctions on the government of the Russian Federation, any Russian actors determined to be responsible for such interference, and those acting on their behalf or providing material or financial support for these election interference efforts."
The senators went on to remind Pompeo and Mnuchin that Congress has already passed laws, including the "Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act," that offers the administration "a range of sanction tools" against countries that target our system of elections.
As best as I can tell, Pompeo and Mnuchin have not yet responded to the correspondence, but the senators are hardly raising a trivial point.
The White House hasn't exactly denied last week's reporting on Russian interference, so much as the president's team has argued that Putin isn't eager to help Trump directly. It's a highly dubious contention, but it's also not the only relevant point: if the Kremlin is once again attacking our elections, the intended political beneficiaries matter, but so too does the attack itself.
Either Team Trump cares about this or it doesn't. Either administration officials are prepared to use the tools available to them or they aren't.