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Opinion Trump confirms, in an interview, a U.S. cyberattack on Russia

President Trump at the White House on Thursday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

This column is the second of two I’m writing based on my interview with President Trump on Wednesday. Read the first part here.

During an Oval Office interview with me this week, President Trump acknowledged for the first time that, in 2018, he authorized a covert cyberattack against Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg-based troll farm that spearheaded Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and was doing the same in the 2018 midterm elections.

Asked whether he had launched the attack, Trump replied: “Correct.”

Trump said that, in 2016, President Barack Obama “knew before the election that Russia was playing around. Or, he was told. Whether or not it was so or not, who knows? And he said nothing. And the reason he said nothing was that he didn’t want to touch it because he thought [Hillary Clinton] was winning because he read phony polls. So, he thought she was going to win. And we had the silent majority that said, ‘No, we like Trump.’ ”

Unlike Obama, Trump says, he acted on the intelligence he was given about Russia’s election interference by striking its cyber capabilities.

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“Look, we stopped it,” the president said.

The cyberattack was previously reported in The Post, but Trump had never officially confirmed it until now. Senior U.S. officials also confirmed for me that the strike occurred and was effective, taking the Internet Research Agency offline.

Trump had elevated U.S. Cyber Command to the status of a unified command in 2017 and gave it new authorities to conduct offensive cyberoperations in 2018. The cyberattack appears to have been the first that was designed to frustrate Moscow’s attempts to interfere with a U.S. election.

Russian interference in the 2018 midterm elections was serious and pervasive. In February 2018, then-Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that “the United States is under attack,” and that Russia had been emboldened in 2018 by the success of its previous influence operations, for which the United States had imposed no price. During the hearing, Democrats accused the Trump administration of failing to prepare to protect the 2018 vote. “We’ve had more than a year to get our act together and address the threat posed by Russia and implement a strategy to deter future attacks. But we still do not have a plan,” the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), told the intelligence chiefs.

Well, it turns out Trump did have a plan. In March 2018, during a White House news conference, Trump was asked about possible Russian election interference. “We won’t allow that to happen,” Trump said. “We’ll counteract whatever they do. We’ll counteract it very strongly.” And unlike his predecessor in 2016, he did so, using America’s offensive cyber capabilities in an unprecedented way against Russia’s interference operations.

During our interview, Trump said the cyberattack was part of a broader policy of confronting Russia throughout the world. “Nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have,” he said. The president offered a litany of actions he has taken to counteract Russia. “I could give you 30 different things,” he said. “I sent [Ukraine] a massive number of antitank busters. I sent them military equipment and Obama sent them nothing. That’s against Russia,” he says. “I made us the number one oil-producing country in the world. It wasn’t even close. I made us number one — that’s bad for Russia.”

The president also cited his pressure on Germany to cancel the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline from Russia and avoid becoming even more dependent on Moscow than it already is. “Germany is paying billions of dollars, billions to Russia,” Trump says. “And we’re supposed to protect Germany from Russia. How does that work?”

But his “biggest” move of all to counter Russia, Trump said, has been his restoration of America’s military: “I rebuilt our military. We now have the newest military we’ve ever had. . . . That’s not good for Russia either. You understand?”

Trump has used that military against Russia, and not just in cyberspace. The New York Times reported that U.S. forces killed several hundred Russian mercenaries during a February 2018 firefight in eastern Syria.

Talking about his efforts to counter Russia, the president also pointed to his success in persuading NATO members to increase their contributions to the transatlantic alliance. “I raised $140 billion from NATO countries going up to $400 billion [over three years], and what’s the purpose of NATO? Russia.”

Trump said that, thanks to his efforts, eight NATO allies are now meeting their NATO commitment to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. “And by the way, 2 percent is too little,” he said. “I had some that were paying almost nothing, and now they’re paying. And they asked me the big question: Would you leave if — and I said, ‘Yeah, I would leave.’ And if you don’t give that answer, they’re not going to pay.”

But does the president want to exit NATO? “No, I don’t want to leave,” Trump said. “But I want them to pay their fair share.”

Trump recently announced that he is withdrawing nearly 10,000 U.S. troops from Germany. He told me that some of the troops will be going to Poland. “Two different locations, including Poland. I’m also bringing some back home. I’m bringing about half back home and half are going to different places that deserve it.”

The president said that even though “every week, we put more sanctions on Russia,” he and Russian President Vladimir Putin “actually have a very good relationship.” The two leaders are “trying to work out a nuclear arms treaty that’s going to be a significant one. . . . There is no more important thing that we can do than nuclear arms control.”

I asked him about Russian support for the Taliban. Regardless of whether Russia actually paid bounties to kill U.S. troops, as has been reported, Russia is supporting the Taliban, which is killing Americans. Shouldn’t Moscow be punished? “I think Russia, the last thing they want is to get involved with Afghanistan,” Trump said. “Okay? The last thing they want. They were there for a long time. The Soviet Union became Russia because of Afghanistan, because they got beaten so badly in Afghanistan.” With U.S. troops withdrawing (“We’re almost out”), the president said, his attitude is that if Russia wants to go back into Afghanistan, “Enjoy yourselves.”

I asked Trump why he is so determined to withdraw completely from Afghanistan and Syria, as opposed to leaving a small counterterrorism force to train and enable local fighters and help them fight our enemies for us? Why the determination to get to zero? Trump didn’t reply directly, saying: “I’m certainly not a globalist. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that. I think globalists are not in vogue right now. Because when we were globalists, we were losing with everybody.”

On the subject of China, Trump said that Chinese cyberoperations against the United States exceed those of the Russians, but it receives less attention because “Democrats and their donors and others, frankly, are all making a lot of money with China until I come along. Until the China flu came along, the China virus came along, until this happened, we were beating them so badly. It was incredible. That’s why people say, ‘Do you think it was an accident?’ It was gross incompetence or something happened, but one thing they did, they let it escape the country. That’s one thing they did. And it was a big change in many different ways, including political.”

The president said that Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have made his dealings with China more difficult. “If I make a deal and it’s a phenomenal deal, let’s say a trade deal with China, Schumer and Pelosi will say, ‘It’s a terrible deal.’ They won’t have ever seen the deal. If I say, ‘No, you don’t understand. China’s giving us everything, they’re giving us everything, and we can buy Beijing for one dollar,’ they’ll say, ‘It’s a terrible deal.’ Anything you do is a terrible deal.”

The “automatic” opposition, he said, is “standard political. But it’s so bad for the country.”

Does Trump think it would change during a second term? Would Democrats be forced to cooperate if voters give him another four years? “The only way it’s going to, we have to keep on winning. It was starting to change until we got hit with the China virus. It was starting to change. They were starting to come around toward the end. And then this happened. This changed things. And now they think they have a chance.”

Nonetheless, Trump remains confident about November, thanks to “the greatest base in the history of politics. . . . Have you been watching the boats in Florida, all over the country? Thousands of boats every weekend. They have thousands of boats, and cycles, you know the bikers for Trump? They had a line last week, it went miles long, bikers for Trump, and they have the flags and the whole thing.”

“I love the country,” Trump said, “and so, despite all of the things I have to do, I just feel I have to do it right.” Here is something he did right. While Trump is accused of not taking Russian interference seriously, he did more than Obama ever did to combat it.

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: An interview with President Trump: ‘The real hate is the hate from the other side’

Dana Milbank: Trump’s GOP is becoming a Garish Opera of Paranoia

Gary Abernathy: The political pendulum has swung away from Trump. But there’s time for it to swing back.

Catherine Rampell: How the Trump administration is turning legal immigrants into undocumented ones