FOR A man who has regularly cast doubt on the fact that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, President Trump made comments at a Tuesday news conference that were surprisingly on point.
“We won’t allow that to happen,” Mr. Trump said about the prospect of further foreign interference, promising to “counteract whatever they do.” He said the government was conducting “a very, very deep study, and we’re coming out with, I think, some very strong suggestions on the ’18 election.”
This is closer to what the commander in chief should be saying in the wake of a hostile foreign influence campaign. Yet it falls short of wholehearted acceptance of the intelligence community’s continuing alarm about Russian capabilities and intentions. And the president’s words are meaningless unless backed by actions, which, by many accounts, are still lacking.
For example, when asked about what the administration has done to combat the Russian threat, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week pointed to a fresh $40 million the State Department just committed to countering foreign propaganda. But that $40 million infusion is, in fact, an example of how the Trump administration has slow-walked the response to Russia’s interference in 2016.
The money is going to the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, an office President Barack Obama created to combat the spread of terrorist propaganda online. In late 2016, Congress decided to boost its funding substantially, transferring some money from the Defense Department, and to expand its mission to include combating the spread of misinformation emanating from foreign governments.
At least that was the idea. As Politico and the New York Times have reported, none of the $120 million Congress set aside for the center in December 2016 has yet been spent. In order to access the funding, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had to formally request the transfer from the Defense Department. He waited months to do so. Now, after months more delay, a $40 million transfer will perhaps happen in April.
There was room for caution about immediately ramping up spending at the center, which has a mixed history. Yet once Russian disinformation operations became known, the U.S. government had to respond. And once Congress decided to boost the center’s funding and expand its mission, designating the center as the federal government’s lead coordinator in countering foreign propaganda, the Trump administration should have prioritized funding it and developing a workable strategy.
The plan the State Department finally developed would rely in part on the good work independent organizations and individuals are beginning to do to blunt Russian propaganda messages. This plan should have been in place a year ago.
There are other things that should be happening. Adm. Michael S. Rogers, director of the National Security Agency and commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, testified before Congress last week that the federal government should be doing more to deter further encroachments, which could include new sanctions and expanded cyberoperations. Yet, he revealed, the president has given him no new authorities to fight cyber election intrusions at their source.
Meanwhile, states are in varying degrees of readiness for the midterms, some still using aging voting machines that leave no auditable paper trail. Congress should fund upgrades and channel more money into the federal response — and make sure the Trump administration spends it.