Democratic lawmakers are publicly calling out Russia for engaging in war by meddling in the presidential election.
The Democrats have been particularly bullish in the wake of FBI Director James Comey’s disclosure that the bureau is investigating whether there was coordination between Trump’s associates and Russia in the influence campaign, which involved leaking hacked personal emails from Democratic operatives to damage Hillary Clinton.
The warfare accusations fit into a larger narrative pushed by Democrats that casts President Trump as weak on Russia and plays up the damage done by Moscow through the electoral interference.
The rhetoric also puts Republicans—who often characterize themselves as more hawkish on Russia and defense—in a bind as they try to defend to the new administration’s strategy on Russia.
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) most recently accused Russia of engaging in warfare. “I think this attack that we’ve experience is a form of war, a form of war on our fundamental democratic principles,” Coleman said during a hearing this week at the House Homeland Security Committee.
She lambasted Trump for his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking a panel of experts and former officials what message Trump’s “borderline dismissive attitude” toward Moscow’s cyber attack sends to the Kremlin and other nations.
Two other Democrats made similar charges at the House Intelligence Committee hearing where Comey testified.
“I actually think that their engagement was an act of war, an act of hybrid warfare and I think that’s why the American people should be concerned about it,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.).
“This past election, our country was attacked. We were attacked by Russia,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). “I see this as an opportunity for everyone on this committee, Republicans and Democrats, to not look in the rearview window but to look forward and do everything we can to make sure that our country never again allows a foreign adversary to attack us.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, has similarly described the election meddling as an “attack” and likened it to the United States’ “political Pearl Harbor.”
Doug Heye, a former communications operative for Republican Eric Cantor, described the rhetoric as “alarmist” and indicative of partisan politics.
He said some lawmakers have raised good questions about potential ties between Trump associates and Russia, but that Democrats are largely trying to delegitimize Trump’s victory.
“The Democrats either still don’t believe or don’t want to send the message that they lost the election,” he said.
Michael Schmitt, an international law professor at the University of Exeter in Britain, told The Hill that public officials need to choose their words carefully to “control escalation.”
“I find that sort of talk dangerous,” said Schmitt, who led the team of legal experts that formulated the Tallinn Manual 2.0, a comprehensive analysis of how international law applies to cyberspace.
The Army’s top officer also cautioned individuals about using the term “war” to refer to the cyberattacks, telling a conference on Tuesday, “If it’s an act of war, then you’ve got to start thinking of your response to that sort of thing.”
Democrats don’t appear to be calling for a military response to what they say was an act of war.
They’ve instead called for tightening sanctions on Moscow or creating an independent commission similar to the one that investigated the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
“I’ll tell you what our next step should not be,” Swalwell told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Monday when pressed on what a “counterattack” should look like. “It should not be a warmer embrace of Russia, as the president clearly has intimated he wants to do. The sanctions should get tougher. We should expand NATO’s role, not contract it, and we should talk tough with Russia.”
The Trump administration has shown no signs of increasing sanctions or retaliating against Moscow by other means for the hacks.
Intelligence committees in both chambers of Congress are probing Russian interference in the presidential election. However, those investigations have been complicated by Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations that the Obama administration “wire tapped” Trump Tower and leaks to the press about investigations into contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials.
While Republicans have been less inclined to accuse Russia of warfare, one GOP Trump critic has said the election hacking amounted to an act of war.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) came out early with the charge in December, even before the U.S. intelligence community released its unclassified report on the election meddling.
“When you attack a country, it’s an act of war,” McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said during an appearance on Ukrainian television. “And so we have to make sure that there is a price to pay so that we can perhaps persuade Russians to stop this kind of attacks on our very fundamentals of democracy.”
Congress does not yet have a clear handle on what defines war in cyberspace, and has through annual defense policy legislation directed the new administration to spell out what actions in cyberspace may constitute a military response.
Schmitt assesses that the hacking campaign was not an act of war but rather a violation of two prohibitions: one on violating another state’s sovereignty and another on intervention into another state’s affairs.
“Without a scintilla of a doubt, it is not an act of war,” Schmitt said.