SCHUYLERVILLE — Russian interference in U.S. elections must prevented in the future, even it requires pushing President Donald Trump’s administration to deal with the issue, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, said on Friday.
While the 21st Congressional District congresswoman repeatedly noted that special counsel Robert Mueller’s recent investigation on 2016 election interference found “no conspiracy” between the Trump campaign and Russia, Stefanik said the matter is more serious than those around the president seem to think.
“I disagree for example when [Trump’s son-in-law] Jared Kushner said, ‘This was just a few Facebook ads,'” Stefanik said. “This was much, much more than that, much more systemic, much more targeted, with very sophisticated hacking efforts, disinformation efforts targeted to specific campaigns.”
Stefanik spoke with reporters prior to a “Coffee With Your Congresswoman” event at Saratoga Town Hall in Schuylerville — her fourth such event in two days. She held coffees in Watertown and Gouverneur on Thursday, and in Plattsburgh on Friday.
“I think we need to work with the administration and push the administration to take the threat from Russia very seriously,” she said.
As aides expected, the Friday afternoon event just a few miles from Stefanik’s home, which about 70 people attended, proved the most-contentious of the four sessions, with audience members sometimes talking over Stefanik and attempting to argue with her.
The characterization of the Mueller report as finding “no conspiracy” was one of the points criticized by some in the audience. The report found that Trump campaign advisers were aware of support for their campaign from Russia and welcomed it, but said evidence didn’t support that the campaign and the Russians conspired. The report also found nearly a dozen instances in which Trump, who by then was president, potentially tried to block or interfere in the investigation.
“Trump and his team, they welcomed Russian help,” said Saratoga-area activist Joe Seeman, who repeatedly pushed Stefanik for a “yes-or-no answer” whether that was acceptable.
The congresswoman wasn’t going to give a one-word answer. “Bob Mueller found no conspiracy, but the Russian threat is real, it is systematic,” she said.
Stefanik also criticized meetings between Russians and people working on the campaign, including Kushner. “Taking those meetings was bad judgment, but there was no conspiracy,” she said.
She said she has been a consistent supporter of the Mueller investigation, unlike many members of her party, and she indicated she trusted his conclusions.
“What is most concerning to me about the Mueller report is it is very clear how wide of a swath Russia has tried to meddle with our elections, not just in 2016 but going back to 2014, and it something we as a nation need to take very seriously and protect the integrity of our elections going forward,” Stefanik said.
Stefanik is on the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees, which would likely be involved in any further election interference probes.”I think there is bipartisan interest, especially on the national security committees, to take this very, very seriously,” she said.
Stefanik supports three bills already introduced in the House of Representatives “as bipartisan fixes to what went wrong”: one requiring disclosure within all online advertising of who paid for the ad; a prohibition on foreign money going into U.S. elections; and a requirement that leaders of Congress be notified if the FBI begins a counter-intelligence investigation into any presidential campaign.
In the 2016 election, it was publicly known that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was being investigated for her use of a private email service for official business, but the FBI’s counter-intelligence investigation into Russian connections to the Trump campaign was undisclosed. “I was concerned when [FBI Director] Jim Comey circumvented the typical process of letting Congress know when there’s such a critical investigation opened on the Trump campaign,” Stefanik said.
Asked by an audience member about Trump’s vow this week to resist all congressional subpoenas, Stefanik said the most important thing is for Trump to release his tax returns. He is the first president in a half-century not to release his tax returns, but Trump has vowed to resist efforts by congressional Democrats to subpoena them.
“He should at least release the tax returns to Congress,” Stefanik said. “He should do it voluntarily, I’ve been consistent in saying that.”
On other issues, Stefanik said she would support an immigration law that would allow dairy farmers to obtain year-round immigrant agricultural laborers, and she said she is working on bipartisan efforts to address climate change and encourage clean energy sources.
“I’m actually very hopeful with many of my colleagues on the Republican side. I think we’ve seen some shifts within the party and my colleagues who understand the threat of climate change,” Stefanik said.
The 21st Congressional District represents New York’s vast and mostly rural North Country, from Saratoga and Fulton counties to the Canadian border.