President Trump chaired a meeting Friday of his most senior national security advisers to discuss the administration’s effort to safeguard November’s elections from Russian interference, the first such meeting he’s led on the matter, but issued no new directives to counter or deter the threat.
The meeting, which lasted less than an hour, covered all the activities by federal agencies to help state and local election officials, and to investigate and hold accountable Russian hackers seeking to undermine American democracy.
This smacks of a just-for-show meeting, the end result of his staff reading polls and deciding that he needed to show he was concerned about the integrity of our elections. Unfortunately, a transparently formulaic meeting with no new funding, no new proposals and no presidential leadership tells us that Trump doesn’t care about election security. His hint via tweet that Russia was going to hack the midterm elections specifically to benefit Democrats was entirely baseless, but it set off alarm bells that Trump might try to discredit election results if Democrats do very well (which is quite likely).
Democrats have railed at the president for leaving American democracy unprotected. Appearing on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) had this exchange:
MARGARET BRENNAN: I do want to ask you though about a colleague … of yours in the Senate, Senator Claire McCaskill. She faces a tossup election out in Missouri and she confirmed personally this week that Russian hackers unsuccessfully tried to access her Senate computer system. Microsoft I guess was out there saying she is one of at least three individuals who — who were targeted.
Who else is on that list?
SHAHEEN: I don’t know who else is on the list but I do know that we’ve had an experience in our office with people getting phishing emails with social media- accounts. There has been one situation that we have turned over to authorities to look into. And we’re hearing that this is widespread at — with political parties across the country, as well as with members of the Senate. So this is a very big issue and it’s something that we need to address in a bipartisan way. It affects both Republicans and Democrats. It’s about the security of our political process and our government functions and we need to work together to address it.
Meanwhile, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) on ABC News’s “This Week” gingerly rebuffed the president. “The misinformation’s one side of it, then hacking into computers as they did for the [Democratic National Committee], hacking into state election systems. That’s a separate group within the Russian government, but both of them are actively still at work. So for Americans, they’ve got to be able to pay attention to what information’s coming in front of them.” Asked whether Trump was right that the Russians are only helping Democrats, Lankford conceded, “No, the — the Russians are trying to interfere with everyone’s election, and that’s the part that we lose track of. To them, sowing chaos and sowing uncertainty within our democracy is their key goal.”
Republicans aren’t concerned enough about protecting our democracy to call out the president or demand funding. Democrats will try to put their feet to the fire by moving on the Secure Elections Act (“a bipartisan bill designed to improve coordination among federal and state agencies when it comes to sharing information about potential threats to election systems”). Less than two weeks ago, House Republicans refused to authorize more funding for election security, leading to sharp responses from Democrats:
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said Republicans’ refusal to spend more money on election security “represents nothing less than unilateral disarmament” against Russia, citing the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that Russia intervened in the 2016 election and charges brought by the Justice Department against Russian officials for hacking Democratic groups.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat, depicted the vote on election security grants as a defense of U.S. democracy, citing a comment by National Intelligence Director Dan Coats that warning lights about cyber threats to the U.S. are “blinking red” in a manner similar to those before the 9/11 attacks.
“The flashing red light calls us to action!” Hoyer thundered. “Surely we can rise above pandering to party and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to act on behalf of our freedom and our security.” Democrats broke out in chants of “USA! USA!” as Hoyer spoke.
Why is Trump so uninterested in — and Republicans so passive about — the threat to election security? We have a couple of theories.
One theory is that Trump simply hates the topic of Russian interference (so his Republican allies hate it, too). Time and again, he has sided with Putin in denying that interference occurred, only to be forced to retreat (usually via a spokesperson). Rightly or not, Trump thinks that the involvement of Russia in the 2016 election on his behalf, if widely accepted, would undercut his victory in 2016 and delegitimize his presidency. If he takes the problem seriously now, the public will be more and more convinced of Russia’s role. This is the “Trump cannot bring himself to believe” theory.
The other possibility is that Trump actively wants the help from the Kremlin. He likes the bot farms, the disinformation in social media (which he and his aides have been known to pick up and echo) and, most of all, WikiLeaks. Why would he try to shut any of that down, or expose his BFF Putin’s election interference operation? (Goodness knows what he and Putin actually discussed in Helsinki on this topic.) He might not be publicly calling for Russia to find and release Hillary Clinton’s emails, as he did the day Russian hacking of the DNC began (according to the indictment of Russian hackers in the special counsel’s investigation), but in essence, he has agreed to remain asleep at the wheel.
We do not at this point know which is correct, but if Trump knows that the Russian interference is continuing and is deliberately foot-dragging, he’s simply continuing a pattern of, yes, collusion — or a conspiracy, if you will — that involves taking something of value from a foreign national. In plain terms, this would be a grotesque betrayal of American democracy, a vivid example of Russia First policy.
He and aides should consider that if one or both houses of Congress flip to the Democrats, they will no doubt conduct an exhaustive inquiry as to what Trump did or did not do to protect our elections. Evidence of deliberate neglect would be stunning and ample grounds for impeachment.