Trump, GOP Won't Act on Election Interference Warnings

Trump, GOP Won't Act on Election Interference Warnings
AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko
Trump, GOP Won't Act on Election Interference Warnings
AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko
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Foreign powers and domestic disruptors are already interfering in next year’s presidential and congressional elections and this week we learned what the likely response of the Trump re-election campaign will be: bring it on.

Two prominent Trump associates -- Rudy Giuliani and Jared Kushner -- both dismissed the impact of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, essentially telling those currently seeking to sow disinformation, “Come on in, fellas, no big deal.”

What Special Counsel Robert Mueller characterized in his findings as a “sweeping and systematic” effort by the Russian government to interfere, and help elect Trump, was “a couple Facebook ads,” Kushner said Tuesday, adding that the investigation itself -- into a foreign attack on this nation’s electoral process -- had done more damage to democracy. To Rudy, “there’s nothing wrong” with accepting help from a hostile foreign power.

Some characterized Kushner’s comments as unpatriotic, even treasonous. What they were, at best, was irresponsible. They were also false. According to the Mueller Report, by Election Day the Russian government was spending more than $1 million per month on its campaign and, by Facebook’s account, reaching one-third of the U.S. population.

The very hour that Kushner spoke at the Time 100 Summit, NBC was reporting that Twitter had removed 5,000 accounts of bots attacking the Mueller investigation as the “Russiagate hoax.” They weren’t Russian bots but ones connected to a pro-Saudi social media operation that formerly went under the name Arabian Veritas, which had claimed to be “an initiative that aims to spread the truth about Saudi Arabia and the Middle East through social engagement.”

The escalating assault won’t abate unless the U.S. government acts to stop it, and silence is an invitation -- Kushner and Giuliani are practically asking out loud for help from ally or adversary. If Trump aided Bibi Netanyahu in his recent re-election, so much so that the prime minister just announced he wants to name a town in the Golan Heights after him, why won’t the Israelis launch their own cyber offensive on his behalf along with the Russians and the Saudis?

On Wednesday the New York Times reported that the administration is incapable of protecting the country from another foreign cyberattack in our future elections because officials, knowing this upsets the president, not only don’t discuss it with him but can’t proceed to establish a robust system of defenses. Kirstjen Nielsen, whom Trump forced out as Homeland Security secretary weeks ago, found her efforts to bolster the nation’s cyber defenses stymied so repeatedly she eventually “gave up on her effort to organize a White House meeting of cabinet secretaries to coordinate a strategy to protect next year's elections.” Despite the conclusion of the administration's own intelligence officials that the Russian efforts are ongoing, were active in the midterm elections last fall and will remain a threat next year, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told Nielsen not to bring it up around the president, according to The Times story.  

And while Chris Krebs, director of DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, is providing assistance to state and local election officials to help scan their systems to protect databases, etc., there is no whole-of-government effort to mitigate the threat of disinformation and cyberattacks like hacking of the candidates and campaigns. Nothing has been coordinated among the NSA, DNI, CIA and FBI, a mission that Nielsen believed was critical but was discouraged from creating. National Security Adviser John Bolton removed the position of cybersecurity coordinator at the White House last year.

Meanwhile, besides the intelligence community’s warnings about next year, a little-noticed joint intelligence bulletin issued by both the FBI and DHS earlier this month reported that Russian reconnaissance and hacking in 2016 went beyond the 21 states reported in previous assessments: “the FBI and DHS assess that Russian government cyber actors probably conducted research and reconnaissance against all US states’ election networks leading up to the 2016 Presidential elections.”

Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network, who worked with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to combat this threat in the midterms, said we are not prepared for the attacks on an election that ostensibly began nearly four months ago when Democratic presidential candidates began their campaigns. Politico reported that “sustained and ongoing” disinformation assaults are already targeting the campaigns of Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, along with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Rosenberg laid out three actions in a piece this month in Medium that would amount to first steps to protect elections -- paper ballots and audits, protections against hacking and cyberattacks for federal candidates, and pledges to forgo illicit campaign tactics. Protections, he said, should have been in place by now, but as of this week there was no central figure of authority, chain of command or plan.

“Trump’s denial the Russia attack ever took place,” he told RealClearPolitics, “has suppressed the normal immune response which would have kicked in to protect ourselves from future attacks.  Bills have been blocked, common-sense steps not taken, some important government capacities have even been unraveled. All of it has left us unprepared for what is coming this election cycle, and it is important that both parties in Congress come together in the days ahead around a few simple, achievable things which can make it less likely foreign governments can once again manipulate our elections for their advantage.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are AWOL, with a host of reasons why they won’t act -- it’s a media story, their voters don’t care, the Russian attack didn’t affect the outcome of the election, the Russians have done this forever, the onus should be on the social media platforms anyway. Out on a limb alone is Sen. Marco Rubio, who has co-sponsored the DETER Act with Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, no surprise, had no interest in putting it on the Senate floor in the last Congress and its prospects have only grown more dim. In his statement about the Mueller Report, Rubio made no mention of the president’s misconduct but focused on Putin’s efforts to meddle in 2016: “That Putin attempted to interfere in our elections should no longer be doubted by anyone. ... Sadly there remain fringe voices that continue to deny what Putin did.” Rubio’s faint cry, alone in the GOP, isn’t going to pressure the administration to act -- the president is one of those fringe voices.

Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer who ran for president in 2016 and now runs Stand Up Republic, penned a piece for NBC News calling for impeachment proceedings on the basis that Trump “bears distinct responsibility for our failure to defend against Russia’s hostility and take the steps necessary to deter future threats.”

But McMullin told RCP Trump’s denial also puts more pressure on congressional Republicans to act: "Sadly, most congressional Republicans have decided to take the political path of least resistance in staying silent, or worse, defending the president's conduct following the release of the redacted Mueller Report and the specter of continued foreign information warfare attacks, rather than taking the tougher path of leadership. But they took an oath to support and defend the Constitution and I believe they, and the GOP, will be measured in the years ahead by the degree which they kept that patriotic commitment at a time when American democracy was under threat."

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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