The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion With Trump sabotaging American democracy, the Russians don’t need to interfere

Christopher Krebs during a Washington Post Live event in 2018.
Christopher Krebs during a Washington Post Live event in 2018. (Kristoffer Tripplaar/For The Washington Post)

THE STORY of Russian interference in the 2020 election came to an anticlimax on Nov. 3 when, well, nothing much appeared to happen. There are several possible explanations for the Kremlin’s relative restraint — but one of the likeliest is that much of the damage Vladimir Putin’s government could have inflicted upon us we were already inflicting upon ourselves. Tuesday’s firing of Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Christopher Krebs is a case in point.

The United States was unprepared for bots, trolls, hack and leak operations, and the probing of critical infrastructure by Moscow four years ago. This year, it was so prepared that some researchers warned of the dangers of imagining interference where it did not actually exist. Gen. Paul Nakasone, the director of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, has hinted to reporters that his forces have had ample success anticipating attacks from adversaries and preempting them, though details there remain scarce. The State Department revoked the visas of would-have-been meddlers; the Treasury Department imposed sanctions. Public-private partnerships with social media sites were robust. Mr. Krebs’s CISA coordinated with state and local elections officials to secure their systems, all the while communicating with the public about threats in a manner that promoted responsibility but discouraged panic — including via the Rumor Control website that appears to have enraged the president into ousting him.

All these efforts almost surely helped deter a reprise of 2016. But experts note that Russia’s reasoning when evaluating a potential interference operation is similar to any of ours when we consider taking a risk: What’s the reward? In this case, the reward was minimal. Much of Russia’s discord-sowing work was being done for it by domestic rumormongers, propagandists and partisans including President Trump himself. This country’s outgoing leader went into election season suggesting the vote would be rigged and is selling the same lies now following his defeat. Those monitoring social media sites in the wake of the election confirm that while some of the usual foreign suspects were attempting to stir up discord, they were gaining far less traction than their counterparts right here at home.

Indeed, it is those here at home who have given dedicated public servants such as Mr. Krebs the most trouble in the past two weeks. The White House tried to obstruct the CISA director and his colleagues as they debunked viral falsehoods about voter fraud and certified publicly that the election was secure. Mr. Trump isn’t even bothering to offer a pretext for Mr. Krebs’s firing: “The recent statement by Chris Krebs on the security of the 2020 Election was highly inaccurate,” he tweeted, contrary to all available evidence. It is precisely against such lies that Mr. Krebs was laboring to protect our democracy — and it is precisely these lies that continue to save America’s adversaries so much energy.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Trump’s purges are spreading, and it’s dangerous

David Ignatius: Christopher Krebs showed officials can protect the country — if they show some backbone

David Ignatius: Trump and his supporters are discovering how hard it is to sabotage election results

Garrett M. Graff: The chaos Trump is sowing threatens the Biden transition — and all Americans

Jennifer Rubin: Distinguished persons of the week: Doing your job can be heroic