U.S. Senator Mark Warner is no stranger to Southwest Virginia, but his visit to Galax on Wednesday for a Town Hall touched on much broader issues at the forefront of the minds of most Americans.
With topics ranging from the recent events in Charlottesville to President Donald Trump and Warner’s involvement in the investigation into Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential election, the former Virginia governor captivated a standing-room only crowd at the Crossroads Institute in Galax.
Warner, who served as Governor of Virginia from 2002-2006, is in his second term as a U.S. Senator. He stepped back into the national spotlight earlier this year as the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee when he joined Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina in steering an investigation into possible Russian collusion with Trump’s presidential campaign. And while Warner has always stressed bipartisanship, he made it clear to the crowd in Galax about issues he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the Republican president. Chief among those, Warner said, was the way Trump handled the aftermath of the White Nationalist rallies in Charlottesville recently in which one protestor and two state troopers were killed.
“I obviously disagree with Mr. Trump on a lot of things but some of his actions have been so outrageous and so kind of not who we are as a country…I actually think there is a whole lot of folks on both parties who are going to reject that kind of approach,” Warner said. “On (August 12) with all the bad stuff going on in Charlottesville, I had a half dozen senators calling me, half of them were Republicans, saying, ‘Mark, I am thinking about what’s going on, I feel for you and your state.’ So in a way this president may be a unifier, just not in the way anyone would have anticipated.”
Warner said he’s been involved with politics for a long time, but he can’t think of another time when there is more unease in America’s political system than right now. He seemed ready to take a shot at Trump when he began to say “If any president from any party did some of the things that have happened in the last seven or eight months,” before stopping to say “It’s a brave new world and we have to somehow get through it.”
The Senator then turned his attention to the Russian investigation because he said there’s been a lot of confusion over what happened. He said Trump often calls it a “witch hunt” or “fake news,” but he and Burr have been trying to handle the investigation in a bipartisan way to make sure it never happens again. He said the investigation breaks into two categories – the first of which is finding out what happened in the 2016 election.
“And that part there is really not that much disagreement. Everybody in the defense department agrees, everybody who is in the intelligence community agrees, the CIA, NSA, all of our intelligence organizations. Actually every member I know of the United States Senate, regardless of whether they are democrat or republican, agree,” Warner said. “There is a little bit of a problem where maybe the one person in Washington that doesn’t fully agree is actually the president of the United States, and that is a challenge. I have no interest in re-litigating 2016. In 2016 Donald Trump got elected president. I am not trying to change any of that. What I am trying to change though is how we make sure what happened in 2016 couldn’t happen again in 2017 or 2018 or 2020.”
Warner said Russia has been kind of a failing state for the past 20 years with not much going for them other than oil. They have a leader, he said, in Vladimir Putin who is “a really bad hombre.” But one thing Russia has done is realized the 21st century way of fighting wars may not be with guns, rockets or tanks, but through cyber-attacks – disrupting other countries by messing with their elections, shutting down their power grid or breaking into their medical systems.
“If you add up all the money Russia spends trying to intervene, they did it in the French elections, they did it the Dutch elections, they are doing it right now as we speak in the German elections, you add that all up and double it, it is still less than five percent of the cost of an American aircraft carrier,” Warner said. “And when the price of oil dropped and the Russians really had tough economic times, they cut back on planes and ships and boats, but they didn’t cut back on cyber. I think our military has to be the strongest in the world. But I am worried a little bit that we may have the greatest, strongest 20th century military ever, but unfortunately we are in the 21st century.”
What is known, Warner said, and what is “pretty much undeniable” is that Russian agents rolled into both American political parties and landed at corruptions at the highest level. The Russian government said, ‘Let’s release information on one candidate, Clinton, and not on the other,’” Warner said. “What we also know, and at very strategic times in the campaign, we also know of the information they collected on both political parties and the information they released, those emails and everything else, they have only released about 10 percent of all the information they stole. So they are still sitting there with a whole bunch of stuff from both political parties that they could use when they feel is to their advantage.”
Secondly, he said Russia also had its spies break into the electoral systems of 21 American states. They didn’t get into any voter booths or change any numbers, Warner said, but they did break into 21 state systems in what seems like a recon mission to be ready for future elections.
“And here is the crazy part. The Department of Homeland Security hasn’t told the 21 Secretaries of State. We don’t know which states they attacked,” Warner said. “And I have been fussing with the Department of Homeland Security, bipartisan, Richard Burr and I both, ‘Hey, this is crazy. Tell us which states were attacked,’ and they say, ‘Well, we can’t tell the Secretary of State because he or she does not have a high-enough security clearance.’ You can’t make this stuff up. And what we have to make sure is we have best practices in place so that we can be better prepared going forward.”
Finally, Warner said Russian agents were able to manipulate how Americans get news from social media giants Facebook and Twitter. They did it by using about 1,000 people working for Russian spy agencies who each went out and made up 10 or 20 fake accounts such as John Smith from Washington State.
“I have seen these accounts and they forget to take out the tagline that happens to be John Smith at the computer in Moscow. And they would send so much fake news into a certain area that it would overwhelm the search algorithm so that what popped up as number one, and particularly at the last of the election, was if you were in Milwaukee for example, it was not Clinton vs. Trump,” Warner said. “That wouldn’t come up as the top story. What would come up as the top story was Hillary Clinton has stolen $7 billion from the state department. It is hard to be a consumer of news today because how do you know what to believe? “
With so many people addicted to their cellphones and social media, Warner said an important question is how to take advantage of the tools of technology without being fooled by fake news, but also in a way that protects first amendment rights.
“We are seeing this in the aftermath of the tragedy in Charlottesville this past weekend. How do we allow people to say what they want even if it is something we don’t agree with, but do it in a way where there is at least some ability somewhere to check if it is true or not? This has nothing to do with Democrat or Republican,” Warner said. “I can remember Walter Kronkite when you use to be able to believe the news. And this is an issue we are going to have to really sort through. The first part is trying to make clear to the American people what happened, and one of our challenges is since the president doesn’t accept this we don’t have anyone that is in charge of how we prevent it in the future. The CIA is trying to do it a little bit, Homeland Security is trying to do it a little bit, but we have no across-the-government-strategy about how we are going to deal with this going forward, and it really scares the dickens out of me. My hope is that the intelligence community will at least lay out a little bit of what happened, but also how we prevent it from happening in the future.”
Warner said he has never seen a circumstance where a president has had to fire his national security advisor “because he didn’t tell the truth about his contact with the Russians” or an Attorney General has had to recuse himself “because he didn’t come forward.” He said he also could not have ever imagined the president of the United States would fire an FBI Director in the middle of an investigation.
“The second half we still have to sort through,” Warner said. “My goal is to get to the truth and try to lay out some policies on how it won’t happen again.”
Warner then turned his attention to topics like healthcare. His suggestion is to offer cheaper plans for younger people, cut back on some of the bureaucracy, let the sickest of the sick, where most of the costs are, be part of an insurance pool driven by the government so that the rest of Americans can be in pools with lower costs.
“Let’s acknowledge there is something wrong in this country when Americans pay five to 10 times higher for drugs that are normally invented here in America, but we pay a heck of a lot more than the Canadians or the French or the British or the Germans or anyone else. Let’s go ahead and use the negotiating power of Medicare and try to get the best plan we can for our country,” he said. “These are not radical ideas. My hope is coming out of some of this chaos is going to come a realization our country would be a heck of a lot better if we spent time trying to fix things rather than trying to blame each other.”
Warner then spent time answering a series of questions from those in the audience such as how to bring more broadband to rural American, the status of the School Modernization Act, why aren’t more federal dollars going to schools for vocational training, women’s healthcare issues, funds for workforce development, and questions and why money was cut from the Appalachian Region Commission. The Senator ended by going back to the violent protests in Charlottesville, saying there are too many positive things going on, particularly at the local level, to get sidetracked by the negatives.
“What I ask of you, because I know you care about the community, is don’t give up. Do a couple of things. One, be willing to call out bad stuff and false stuff. Just because somebody read something on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true,” Warner said. “It’s hard, at church, or a party or at work, to say that is just bologna. We have disagreements but there are ought to be some level of boundaries where we don’t give in to hate, where we don’t give in to turning everyone in this country against each other. We are all free and equal by our creator and this whole notion that we are all striving together, we have to keep that.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN