President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone Friday morning, covering, according to both sides, a wide range of issues. Included among them, according to a subsequent tweet from Trump, was the “Russian hoax” — apparently a reference to the recently concluded investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
It’s a bit uncertain, though: Trump regularly referred to the investigation as a hoax but has also repeatedly claimed that the idea that Russia interfered at all was questionable. The probe led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III left little doubt about Russia’s role. Mueller obtained indictments against two dozen Russians for the two-pronged effort to steal and publish material from Democratic sources and to foster political divisions through events and on social media. Trump has long argued that the source of the hacking in particular was unknowable, reiterating shorthand allusions to his skepticism as recently as February.
In an interview with Fox News on Thursday, Trump was asked whether he had spoken to Putin about Russia’s efforts to interfere in U.S. politics, an effort that Attorney General William P. Barr said in Senate testimony this week was ongoing.
"I don’t think I’ve spoken to him about the 2020, but I certainly have told him you can’t do what you’re doing,” Trump said. “And I don’t believe they will be."
He blamed the 2016 interference on inaction by President Barack Obama, though the Obama administration and Obama specifically did call out Putin as part of its effort to combat Russian interference. Trump later added that he didn’t “want Russia or anybody else playing around with our elections.”
Describing Trump’s call with Putin on Friday afternoon, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders didn’t say that the two discussed Russia’s interference. Instead, she declared that “this administration, unlike the previous one, takes election meddling seriously.”
But does it?
Earlier this week, The Washington Post reported on the tension within the administration between those concerned about Russia’s actions and those, including the president, who often seem largely to be indifferent. It’s worth taking a step back, though, and asking two related questions: What has Russia done and what is it currently doing, and what steps is the administration taking in response?
What Russia is doing
Alina Polyakova is a fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in Russian foreign policy. She spoke with The Post by phone this week to outline what Russia’s interference looks like.
There are several layers to it. One is the traditional sort of spycraft that we’re used to talking about when we’re talking about U.S.-Russia tensions. Another is Russia’s efforts in what Polyakova called the “information space,” including social media and online activity. Then there’s “cyberspace,” referring more broadly to Internet-connected systems that Russia is targeting.
Those tracking the Mueller investigation will be familiar with the information space effort. One of the Mueller indictments focused on a group called the Internet Research Agency which, from 2014 into 2017, created fake online personas that shared content on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter meant to heighten political tensions in the United States. An indictment obtained by the Justice Department in October targeting a woman believed to have coordinated funding for interference efforts suggests that the effort continued into 2018.
Those efforts relied on social media platforms that have gotten a little smarter.
“The strategy was to kind of channel a narrative and then amplify it,” Polyakova said of 2016. “And for that reason Twitter and also Facebook have been a lot better at identifying this kind of strategic manipulation. So when you have 10,000 automated accounts come online all at the same time, that’s pretty easy to pick up, just as a clear, clear example.”
That strategy has evolved.
“Instead of channeling and amplifying, they’re blending into the noise, which means we’re not seeing — because perhaps Twitter has responded effectively or perhaps because they’re adapting — a lot of the bot accounts being used in the same way,” she said. “What we’re seeing is suspicious accounts that look increasingly more human or some combination of automation and human curation, which likely means that maybe one person in that St. Petersburg troll factory or somewhere else in Russia that is controlling a smaller number of accounts.”
She noted that the budget for these operations had increased significantly, according to public reporting, which would allow for more staff and more operations. (That 2018 indictment identified a number of vectors besides the IRA for this activity.) Instead of creating new content meant to heighten polarizing subjects, the new focus appears to be on blending in with and amplifying existing content and channels. The Russians have also gotten smarter at gaming the social networks’ algorithms, something that might be reflected in a report last month suggesting that Russian coverage of the Mueller report made up a disproportionate number of recommendations on YouTube.
“I think increasingly it’s much more difficult for us, as your average user of the social media, to really tell if you’re interacting with a real person,” she said. “The real problem here,” she added, “is that the line between domestic and foreign manipulation, the domestic and foreign line, is really fuzzy now from the point of view of trying to identify this.”
"We have to ask ourselves: What does that mean about our trust in public discourse?” she said.
Then there’s the other part of Russia’s efforts: infiltrating election and other infrastructural systems.
In March 2018, the Treasury Department initiated new sanctions targeting a number of Russians for attempts to access government entities as well as the “energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors.” In short, Russia had gained access to things such as the control systems at power plants. In 2015, hackers believed to be working for Russia targeted electrical infrastructure in Ukraine, knocking out power to 230,000 people. Malware believed to have been used in that attack has been found throughout U.S. infrastructure systems, Polyakova said.
The Mueller report specifically noted that Russian intelligence hackers gained access to at least one computer network for a county in Florida — the sort of thing that could be used to throw an election into chaos. During the 2016 election, the Obama administration took the unusual step of announcing publicly that voter systems were being targeted by Russia. The announcement, though, came Oct. 7, and was quickly buried by coverage of the “Access Hollywood” tape and WikiLeaks’ release of material stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman by Russian hackers.
Polyakova addressed that Florida hack.
"They didn't do anything, as far as we know, such as deleting the voter rolls, but: Why not?” Polyakova said. “In fact, you only have to do that once. As soon as you plant that seed of distrust that some sort of voter disenfranchisement happened, that voter rolls are being deleted, that people's votes aren't being counted in one contested district — imagine that happening in Florida, one of the most contested states — that throws the whole system into a crisis."
How Trump is responding
So what is the administration doing? The Post spoke by phone with Carrie Cordero, senior fellow and general counsel at the Center for a New American Security, to get a sense.
“The big challenge is that there’s not one fix,” she said. Different levels of government have different responsibilities for different things. States, for example, are responsible for hardening their own election systems, and that decentralization makes it hard to know how effective those efforts have been.
At the federal level, it’s also unclear.
“We have this disconnect between what the public is being told at the highest levels of government,” Cordero said, “broad generalities by senior government officials or former senior government officials and then not a lot of information being filled in in terms of what actually has been done. I’m presuming that at working levels of the executive branch, work is being done. But I don’t as an outsider have good visibility into what it actually is.”
She noted that both former Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and outgoing Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein included mentions of election security in their resignation letters — but only in vague terms.
“This is a strategic threat. The intelligence community has informed policymakers and the country of the threat. That’s the intelligence community’s job,” Cordero said. “Now it’s policymakers’ job to actually develop and implement the strategy and — at least as far as what is apparent publicly — there is no White House-led strategy to counter foreign interference in elections. And not only is there not an apparent whole-of-government strategy, there is active resistance to implementing a strategy or to developing a strategy by the president himself. A national security challenge requires leadership, and we haven’t yet seen that leadership on this issue.”
In September, Trump signed an executive order focused on combating interference, focused in large part on applying sanctions in response to new interference efforts.
The most significant action Cordero cited was legislative. In February of last year, then-National Security Agency head Michael S. Rogers had admitted during congressional testimony that Trump hadn’t authorized new authority to counter Russia’s interference efforts. The National Defense Authorization Act signed by Trump in August included a section specifically focused on allowing the Defense Department to take offensive action against foreign hackers — including Russians — in part to deter efforts to “influence American elections.”
Individual government agencies have taken other steps to address the issue. In late 2017, the FBI formed a Foreign Influence Task Force meant to identify and root out efforts to compromise infrastructure including electoral systems. In July 2018, the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command announced their intent to work together to counter Russian interference efforts. This, former NSA head Michael Hayden told The Post, was an effort by intelligence agencies to do what they could “absent an overall approach directed by the president.”
There are limits to how much those agencies can do, however. Federal agencies often can’t readily deter hackers, for example, because hackers generally target the private sector, where the Department of Defense and other agencies have constrained jurisdiction.
Cordero noted that Congress has a broader role to play. It can hold hearings to try to force the administration to take more concrete action. She noted the Honest Ads Act — mentioned by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) during Barr’s testimony this week — which aimed to prevent Russians (or other foreign actors) from surreptitiously buying ads on social media platforms. Congress could also pass laws forcing social-media companies to share more information about user activity instead of relying on their self-policing, she said.
In our conversation, Polyakova offered an unexpected argument for optimism in the face of a murky, piecemeal federal response: Russia didn’t get what it wanted in 2016. Their interference effort was uncovered, leading to broad conversation in the United States and additional sanctions that Trump was unable to prevent.
“Without this operation ever being discovered or without this operation ever taking place, it probably would have had a much better U.S. policy toward Russia,” she said. That might be a disincentive to future action.
And it might not. Russia’s tool set has also evolved in response to the United States’ adaptations to what it has learned — and that, she suggested, is cause for concern.
"I think certainly if they wanted to, all the elements of a Russian attack on our critical infrastructure including our voting system, including the energy issues I mentioned,” Polykova said, “[things] that aren’t on our radar, but they could have incredibly wide-ranging, debilitating effects on our economy. These are all things that are real threats that are still out there.
“The trigger could be pulled at any time,” she said. “I think the question of if or when really depends on the Russian calculus vis-a-vis the United States.”