During the 2018 election, the House campaign arms of Democrats and Republicans came close to an agreement that neither side would use hacked materials for political purposes.
Those talks ultimately fell apart. And if there were any inkling that the committees had a chance for some sort of truce in the 2020 election, Rep. Tom Emmer—the Minnesota Republican who chairs the National Republican Campaign Committee—effectively put the kibosh on that idea Thursday.
Speaking to a group of reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, Emmer balked at a question about coming to an agreement with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee regarding the use of hacked materials this cycle.
“The DCCC is not serious about any of this stuff,” said Emmer in response to a question from The Daily Beast. “It’s all political hackery… Look at what they’ve been putting out. Look at what the responses have been.”
Emmer went on to say that the NRCC is serious about cybersecurity. He relayed that on Wednesday, he rolled out a brand-new campaign cybersecurity program to members of the House GOP conference. “But I'm not going to get into playing political games with a bunch of gotcha back-and-forth that just doesn't do anybody any good,” he said.
Questions about what, if anything, political committees should do with regards to hacked materials have become sharply prevalent in the wake of the 2016 election cycle, when Russian actors gained access to Democratic National Committee documents as well as campaign files related to congressional candidates and Hillary Clinton’s top aide. The dissemination of those stolen files ended up disrupting the Democratic convention, and playing major roles in both congressional primaries and the general election. In one Florida race, an internal Democratic party memo about the strengths and weaknesses of a particular Democratic candidate was made into fodder for a NRCC attack ad.
In the wake of that election, leadership at the DCCC and NRCC tried to form a pact to no longer use such materials. But the talks broke down, Democrats said, when Republican officials declined to commit to not citing press accounts that were based on hacked materials. Republican officials countered that such a commitment was nominally impossible, since it would effectively require candidates to ignore publicly-available information and stories.
There was scant hope that the talks could be revived for the 2020 cycle. Talks were not actively happening early this year, and by April, the DCCC had turned to publicly challenging the NRCC to get on board with an agreement—which was interpreted by Republicans as a sign that Democrats were intent on using the issue as a cudgel with which they could bludgeon the GOP.
The DCCC chair, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL), wrote to Emmer in April that “As the heads of two major party organizations in our nation, we have an obligation to send a clear and unified message that Democrats and Republicans reject foreign interference in our elections."
By May, the Democrats’ messaging had taken a different turn. The DCCC blasted out a press release saying Emmer “Still Has Not Answered Whether NRCC Will Use Hacked or Stolen Information in Campaigns.” The release was in Russian.
In response to Emmer’s comments on Thursday, DCCC spokesman Cole Lieter said that Emmer is “rolling out the red carpet for the next Russian or Chinese hack. This isn’t complicated, the NRCC has used hacked and stolen materials before, they should commit to ending that reckless and dangerous practice right now.”
And the GOP is as much of a target as Democrats are. Last December, the NRCC itself confirmed it had been the victim of a major breach, with hackers pilfering thousands of emails from four or five accounts of officials at the committee, according to POLITICO. Those emails were never made public, but shortly after the hack was announced, Bustos said that both parties should pledge to not use stolen information.
Many GOP lawmakers aren’t dismissing the hacking threat entirely, but feel that party organizations are independently taking sufficient measures to protect themselves. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) told The Daily Beast recently that he doesn’t think Russian election meddling in particular will be successful in 2020.
But, he added, “The issue of their interference became incredibly divisive to the politics of the country post-2016. I think that puts an extra burden of responsibility on all sides to avoid being duped, to make sure their communications are secure, to call out interference when it’s seen. Hopefully we can do that in a bipartisan way.”
Within the Democratic presidential primary, at least, the major campaigns have committed to not using hacked materials against their opponents in response to questions from The Daily Beast. The re-election campaign of Donald Trump has not made that commitment.
According to Alina Polyakova, fellow at the Brookings Institution, these mutual-disarmament pacts would be a good step but would by no means significantly protect the integrity of the 2020 cycle.
“On the one hand, yes, it would be useful if major political parties in the U.S. and elsewhere would reach an agreement, and hold it up, conform to it. But by itself it’s not enough,” she told The Daily Beast in April.