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Thune: Pressure must remain on Russia

U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks to the Rotary Club of Mitchell in September 2017 at the Ramada Inn. (Republic file photo)

The pressure must remain on Russia regarding its impact on American elections, including sanctions, if necessary, U.S. Sen. John Thune said.

As the Senate considers heavier sanctions on Russian industries, Thune, R-S.D., said that the Russians were defiant regarding the 2016 elections during the Congressional delegation's face-to-face meeting in Moscow last month.

"They're not going to take responsibility for any of this. But we know they did it, they know they did it and they need to be held accountable," Thune told The Daily Republic in a recent interview.

Thune was part of the eight-person delegation that made a trip to Russia over the Independence Day holiday. While that trip also touched on Russia's actions with Ukraine and Syria, he said he was there to deliver a tough message.

"That message is that meddling in American elections is not going to be tolerated," he said. "We have sanctions in effect and we're looking at now even more sanctions to deliver that message but I felt like, coming out of that, they understood very clearly that this wasn't a Republican or Democrat issue, or an administration position issue, this was the Congress of the United States articulating (this)."

The trip drew plenty of criticism, including that the meeting unfolded as the Senate Intelligence Committee reported that Russia interfered in 2016 with a preference for helping Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

And most of the impact the congressional effort might have had was overshadowed by President Donald Trump's summit in Helsinki, Finland with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16, in which Trump discredited U.S. intelligence and policies.

Thune said the delegation also attempted to stress that it was an issue that Republicans and Democrats felt strongly about.

"I think there was a perception among the Russians that this was just Hillary Clinton and the Democrats," Thune said. "This is a bipartisan, bicameral commitment to ensuring that countries that Russia don't mess around with our elections."

The current Senate proposal is the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines, or DETER, Act, which would make sanctions more automatic if candidates, campaigns or voting systems are attacked, the U.S. could implement heavier sanctions. The proposal would also seek to punish financial, energy and defense sectors in Russia.

The legislation would require the U.S. director of national intelligence to conclude if any foreign nations interfered in elections one month after Americans cast their votes, and trigger strict sanctions within 10 days if interference was detected.

"It's kind of going nuclear, in terms of sanctions," Thune said. "There are things that are in the last round that we didn't do and would hit industry sectors that would be very, very, I think, problematic for the Russians."

Thune said despite the Russians' attitude, he was hopeful that the message was delivered.

"The one thing that is very clear is that if we're going to have a relationship with the Russians, if it's going to be a responsible one, they're going to have to change their behavior," he said.