The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Russia is going to attack our next election. The Trump administration may not even try to stop it.

The Washington Post examines how, more than a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject evidence that Russia supported his run for the White House. (Video: Dalton Bennett, Thomas LeGro, John Parks, Jesse Mesner-Hage/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Russians are coming for our elections — to disrupt them, to discredit them, and even to affect their outcome. They’ll be coming in 2018, and in 2020. The trouble is that even if we figure out what they’re up to, our own government may be unable or unwilling to stop it.

That’s the conclusion one has to come to upon reading reports like this new one from Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima, and Greg Jaffe, which describes how powerless the federal government has been and continues to be in the face of an ongoing war that Vladimir Putin is waging against U.S. democracy. It was hard enough to resist when the executive branch wanted to resist it; who knows how hard it will become as President Trump feels more politically threatened by upcoming elections and Robert S. Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in 2016.

This new report shows how the Russian effort last year included not only hacking into Democratic email systems and the use of an army of social media bots, but also the creation of articles pitched to left-leaning websites, which were used to attack Hillary Clinton and promote Wikileaks. While it was going on, the government was all but paralyzed:

The events surrounding the FBI’s NorthernNight investigation follow a pattern that repeated for years as the Russian threat was building: U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies saw some warning signs of Russian meddling in Europe and later in the United States but never fully grasped the breadth of the Kremlin’s ambitions. Top U.S. policymakers didn’t appreciate the dangers, then scrambled to draw up options to fight back. In the end, big plans died of internal disagreement, a fear of making matters worse or a misguided belief in the resilience of American society and its democratic institutions.
One previously unreported order — a sweeping presidential finding to combat global cyberthreats — prompted U.S. spy agencies to plan a half-dozen specific operations to counter the Russian threat. But one year after those instructions were given, the Trump White House remains divided over whether to act, intelligence officials said.
President Trump weighed in on Russia and North Korea on Dec. 15. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: YURI GRIPAS/The Washington Post)

As former acting CIA director Michael Morell and former House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers note in this op-ed, Russian cyberwarfare efforts didn’t stop after 2016. Of late their covert social media strategies have involved attacking the FBI, going after Republican politicians who are critical of President Trump, and even urging a boycott of Keurig when it pulled its advertising from Sean Hannity’s show.

But it’s not as simple as promoting President Trump and the GOP. Most experts believe Vladimir Putin’s motives are more complex than that, and involve sowing discord and confusion that destabilizes our system. The danger becomes particularly acute during election season.

There are three fundamental questions to ask about this threat: Do we know what they’re doing? If we know what they’re doing, do we know how to fight it? And if we know how to fight it, do we have the will to do so?

At various times the answer to all three has been no. But let’s say that some time in 2018 — or even more likely, in 2020 — intelligence agencies and private analysts conclude that Russia is engaging in an effort to subvert our electoral process through hacking electoral systems, waging a covert propaganda war, or some other means we haven’t even thought of yet. What then? We know that President Trump sees every new development in terms of himself, and that he views any and all questions about Russian meddling as nothing more than an effort to delegitimize his glorious 2016 victory. It seems unlikely that he’ll react any differently to new reports of Russian meddling, particularly if it comes at a moment when he’s faced with the possibility of defeat. Which means there’s a very strong chance that this is what will happen:

  • When reports of new Russian efforts to attack our elections emerge, President Trump will insist it’s all “fake news,” try to discredit the analysis and insist that it’s just his political enemies seeking to delegitimize the victories he and his party win.
  • Trump’s assertion will immediately be echoed and amplified by his allies in conservative media, particularly on Fox News, talk radio, and websites like Breitbart, which will attack the analysts and agencies warning of the Russian efforts.
  • Republican members of Congress will take up Trump’s charge, perhaps even attempting to launch their own investigation of the investigation.

That’s what’s happening right now. Trump’s most loyal allies are lashing out at anyone who seems to threaten the president, even if it means dismissing the idea that a well-documented Russian assault against the United States is anything to be concerned about. They’ve even decided that the FBI, one of the most conservative agencies in the government, is a hotbed of leftist subversion and must be purged of anyone who ever expressed any skepticism about Donald Trump.

So when the next Russian attack on our electoral system comes, and it comes in a new form that we may not have been prepared for, how is the government going to react? When the FBI or the CIA rush to the president, explaining what’s going on and asking for his approval to take action to protect the integrity of our democracy, is he going to tell them to back off? Trump already seems much more inclined to believe Vladimir Putin than his own intelligence agencies on these questions. What kind of pressure will Republicans in Congress and the conservative media put on those agencies to shut down any meaningful response? How vulnerable will that leave us, and what will the consequences be?

Right now we have no idea. But there isn’t much reason to feel reassured.