Donald Trump’s homeland security chief Kirstjen Nielsen has said it is a priority to protect the country’s elections amid accusations the president is showing “no sense of urgency” over the threat.
In a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, legislators attacked Mr Trump’s response to findings by the US intelligence community that Russia meddled in the US’s 2016 presidential election.
During the hearing, which was held to examine Mr Trump’s efforts to improve election security ahead of the midterms in November, Republican Senator Susan Collins expressed concern to DHS Secretary Ms Nielsen about the department’s sluggishness in getting security clearances for election officials who are responsible for securing voting systems.
“At this point, we know for certain that the Russians were relentless in their efforts and also that those efforts are ongoing,” Ms Collins said. “And yet, when I listen to your testimony, I hear no sense of urgency to really get on top of this issue.”
Ms Nielson responded by calling the issue a matter of “extreme urgency”. She said her department was “prioritising election efforts … over all other critical infrastructure sectors,” such as the financial, energy and communication systems.
Twenty election officials had received security clearances, she said.
“Twenty out of 150?” Ms Collins gasped.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ms Nielsen admitted.
More than a year into its investigation into Russia’s 2016 election meddling, the committee on Tuesday issued its first recommendations on how to fix the US election system. Along with pressing states to buy voting machines that produce paper ballots and to secure voter databases, the panel also urged the Mr Trump to make clear that it would not tolerate any attacks on systems used to run elections. The panel also called for better cooperation between state and federal elections officials ahead of the midterm elections.
Republican Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the need for improvements in election security is “urgent.”
“This issue is urgent. If we start to fix these problems tomorrow, we still might not be in time to save the system for … 2020,” he said at a committee hearing on the issue, a day after it released draft recommendations on how to fix the system.
The next US presidential election will take place in 2020.
Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich said there appears to be no doctrine from Mr Trump explaining what the consequences for Russia will be if it interferes with US elections again.
The hearing came a day after Mr Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone and congratulated him for his reelection.
The congratulatory call has been widely criticised, with Republican Senator John McCain saying that ”an American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections.”
During their conversation, Mr Trump didn’t raise Russia’s meddling in US elections or its suspected involvement in the poisoning of a former spy in Britain. The Russian government has denied its involvement in both.
Democratic Senator Mark Warner, the Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said at the hearing on Wednesday that Mr Trump’s failure to bring up the topic of election security is “extremely troubling”.
“We need a president who acknowledges the gravity of this threat,” Mr Warner said.
During a White House briefing on Tuesday following the Trump-Putin call, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Mr Trump has indicated that he will be tough on Russia.
“We’ve been very clear in the actions that we’ve taken that we’re going to be tough on Russia, particularly when it comes to areas that we feel where they’ve stepped out of place,” she said. “We’ve placed tough sanctions on Russia and a number of other things where we have shown exactly what our position is.”