One by one, top U.S. intelligence officials testified to a Senate committee about their concerns that Russia was once again going to interfere with a U.S. election, spreading disinformation, sowing dissent and perhaps this time even penetrating electronic voting devices. There was no ambivalence. They didn’t hedge. They’ve already seen efforts to interfere with European elections with disinformation campaigns on social media.
And there’s something else they all had in common: As of the Tuesday hearing, not one has been told by President Donald Trump to make protecting the mid-term election from foreign hacking a priority. On this issue, nobody is home over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Nothing. Nada. Crickets.
Sadly, no American should be surprised by this level of presidential indifference to an existential threat. There are several possible explanations, and none of them are good. The first, and most generous to the president, is that his fragile ego does not allow him to acknowledge Russian involvement in the last election. He sees every report on social media “bots” or cyber attacks as an assault on his legitimacy. That might help explain, for example, how vice president (and trusty automaton) Mike Pence could tell an Axios gathering in D.C. on Wednesday that the intelligence community has concluded that Russia meddling had no effect on the 2016 election when they have, of course, done no such thing.
But it’s also possible there really is something of an understanding between the president and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which would help explain not only Mr. Trump’s disinterest in protecting the next election but his failure to impose sanctions against Russia that Congress overwhelmingly approved (there were all of five dissenting votes) last year. At the very least, the president has sent Mr. Putin the message that he’s got his back and that election interference isn’t taken all that seriously in these parts. Small wonder that his intelligence chiefs are now left holding the bag.
President Trump claims that Russia collusion is “fake news,” yet why won’t he tell Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, or Mike Pompeo, his CIA director, to do something about actual fake news that the Russians are dumping on voters? Both told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that they are working to better identify Russian misinformation and protect state-run electoral systems. Yet how much better and more coordinated might the response be if the White House actually lifted a finger here and at least directed the full cabinet to coordinate an action plan?
Mr. Trump needs to realize that his failure to address this issue doesn’t make him look stronger or protect the integrity of the 2016 results, it makes him look like a co-conspirator and only reinforces in the public’s mind the need for special counsel Robert Mueller III. The president’s failure to impose sanctions so strongly endorsed by his own party is especially problematic. As Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, one of the chief architects of those sanctions, has noted, “The lack of seriousness shown by the administration in the face of a clear national security threat and even clearer congressional intent is alarming and cannot continue.”
Worse, the president’s war with his own intelligence community, the dueling memos over in the House, and the peddling of “deep state” conspiracy theories from the FBI on down by the nuttier elements of the far-right media has gone far beyond the bounds of rational discourse even by contemporary partisan standards. Surely, Mr. Putin is not the only foreign leader who may be emboldened by this current state of governmental disarray. China and North Korea have cyber weapons at the ready, too. What are they to make of an administration that gives Mr. Putin a pass on using them?
Maryland is on the list of 21 states targeted by hackers — without success — during the 2016 election, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. But the state was also the target of Russian misinformation, specifically social media postings and ads aimed at elevating racial tension in the wake of the Freddie Gray case. It was outrageous behavior by a foreign government then, and it would be just as outrageous if it happens again this year with one bit of difference. This time, the blame will have to be shared by those in the United States who allowed it to happen, those who either failed to protect the nation from the threat out of indifference or, worse, ignored it for political advantage.