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As security officials prepare for Russian attack on 2020 presidential race, Trump and aides play down threat

A partially redacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, shown above, was released in April. (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

In recent months, U.S. national security officials have been preparing for Russian interference in the 2020 presidential race by tracking cyber threats, sharing intelligence about foreign disinformation efforts with social media companies and helping state election officials protect their systems against foreign manipulation. 

But these actions are strikingly at odds with statements from President Trump, who has rebuffed warnings from his senior aides about Russia and sought to play down that country’s potential to influence American politics.

The president’s rhetoric and lack of focus on election security has made it tougher for government officials to implement a more comprehensive approach to preserving the integrity of the electoral process, current and former officials said. 

Officials insist that they have made progress since 2016 in hardening defenses. And top security officials, including the director of national intelligence, say the president has given them “full support” in their efforts to counter malign activities. But some analysts worry that by not sending a clear, public signal that he understands the threat foreign interference poses, Trump is inviting more of it. 

In the past week, Justice Department prosecutors indicated that Russia’s efforts to disrupt the 2016 election are part of a long-term strategy that the United States continues to confront. 

In a memo recommending a prison sentence for Maria Butina, an admitted Russian agent who tried to establish lines of communication with influential Republicans, federal prosecutors said that Russia “has long targeted the United States and U.S. allies.” They warned that activities such as Butina’s “could form the basis of other intelligence operations, or targeting, in the future.” A federal judge sentenced her Friday to 18 months in prison. 

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III called Russia’s 2016 operations “sweeping and systematic,” and noted in his report on Russian interference in the campaign that his office passed information about possible counterintelligence value to the FBI, as part of the bureau’s mission to impede foreign spies in the United States. Officials have said that work continues, separate from the special counsel’s now-closed investigation.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), speaking Sunday on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” said that his takeaway from the Mueller report is that the Russians “were very involved in the 2016 election, they’re coming at us again, and I’d like to stop them.”

“And one way to stop them is to make them pay a price,” he added, arguing for more sanctions.

Mueller report highlights scope of election security challenge

For more than two years, however, Trump has recoiled when aides broached Russia’s 2016 theft and dissemination of Democratic emails and its ma­nipu­la­tion of social media in an effort to sway the election.

“It’s a goddamn hoax,” Trump said in one meeting with advisers in 2017 when they tried to discuss what the government should do to deter Russian operations. People who were present or were briefed about the meeting and other administration discussions spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Last week, some of Trump’s top advisers echoed his sentiments. Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, dismissed the significance of the 2016 interference as Russia “buying some Facebook ads.” And former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, one of Trump’s lawyers, implied that future Kremlin assistance might even be welcome when he told CNN that “there’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.” 

Graham on “Face the Nation” strongly disputed Kushner’s analysis. “I like Jared a lot, but . . . this is a big deal. It’s not just a few Facebook ads. They were very successful in pitting one American against the other . . . and they actually got into the campaign email system of the Democratic Party. An attack on one party is an attack on all.”

Senior security officials say the president directed them to ensure that the 2018 midterm elections were protected.

“On this issue, I want the American people to know that when we needed to brief the president or talk to the American people on the topic of election security in the run-up to the 2018 midterms, the intelligence community had the full support of the NSC and the White House,” Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said in a statement. “I know, because I specifically asked the president for certain capabilities on behalf of the intelligence community and he quickly agreed and also encouraged several of us to speak to the American people. That support has not changed.”

A spokesman for acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan said McAleenan has met several times with top department officials on election security.

“This is a top priority of the department,” spokesman Tyler Houlton said.

Security analysts have greeted Mueller’s findings as a wake-up call and have described them as a roadmap for how Russian operatives work in the United States. But time and mounting evidence, including Mueller’s indictment of 26 Russians in connection with their role in interference operations, hasn’t made Trump more open to frank discussion about the issue, current and former officials said. 

In two meetings in the White House in recent months, Trump said repeatedly that Russia’s efforts didn’t change a single vote, even though his advisers have never suggested that they did, and he continually insisted that the campaign was not “hacked,” according to people who were present or were briefed about the meetings.

During discussions in the Oval Office, Trump has regularly conflated the threat of foreign interference with attacks on the legitimacy of his election, the current and former officials said.

In one meeting in late summer 2018 in the Situation Room, aides told Trump that they wanted to talk publicly to raise voters’ awareness of the interference ahead of the midterm. According to an official familiar with the meeting, Trump placed a condition on any public statements: The aides must also make clear that Russia didn’t influence his win.

At times, Trump has implicitly acknowledged Russia’s actions, but he also has tried not to blame one country exclusively — saying that other nations are worse. 

Several advisers said that Trump has mocked them for focusing on Russia, saying that “China is the only game in town,” and predicting that a bunch of “other countries” would try to emulate Russia’s efforts, current and former U.S. officials said.

When Kirstjen Nielsen brought up election interference when she was homeland security secretary, Trump quickly shifted the conversation to immigration enforcement, two administration officials said. In one briefing before the 2018 election, Nielsen went to the White House to talk about interference and Trump changed the conversation to the caravan of immigrants coming from Mexico, aides said.

Some senior administration officials, including Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told Nielsen that she should pay more attention to immigration and border security because those were the issues the president cared about.

And there was tension among Trump’s top officials. Nielsen blamed national security adviser John Bolton for not elevating election security on the president’s agenda, several current and former administration officials said.

Bolton has not extensively focused on the subject or convened regular meetings about raising defenses, White House officials said. Aides say the matter was instead addressed via interagency memos and that officials reached few policy decisions.

“Part of what you’re seeing is her frustration with getting Bolton to focus on this, trying to get the [National Security Council] to pull together regular, constructive policy conversations” on the matter, an official said.

Nielsen called her own meetings twice in the run-up to the midterm, with Coats, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, then-National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers and later his successor, Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, attending.

NSC spokesman Garrett Marquis defended Bolton. “National Security Council staff, led by Ambassador Bolton, works closely across government to address foreign malign influence and ensure election security, which is why the 2018 elections were secure. Any suggestion otherwise is patently false,” he said in a statement.

Officials say they have been working to raise the country’s defenses and awareness ahead of 2020.

The National Security Agency has tracked intelligence overseas that might point to efforts by Russians or other adversaries to break into U.S. computer networks or mount influence operations. The agency has shared that intelligence with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security so that officials there can warn social media companies and other potential targets. 

A group Nakasone set up with U.S. Cyber Command and NSA personnel last year to counter Russian influence is now permanent. As part of that effort, Cyber Command, pursuant to a presidential directive, blocked Internet access to Russian trolls as Americans voted in November. 

Cyber Command disrupted IRA trolls during U.S. midterm elections

The FBI established a Foreign Influence Task Force in 2017 that is monitoring efforts to mount influence operations, whether by targeting vulnerable Americans, creating fake personas on social media or conducting cyberattacks on political parties and elected officials. The task force works closely with the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as social media companies. 

The department has contacted officials in all 50 states to help secure their election infrastructures and is sharing threat data with state and local election offices, social media firms, political parties, and others. Election security and foreign influence task forces the department set up in 2017 have been made permanent under its new National Risk Management Center.

Officials said these measures and others have been taken regardless of the lack of explicit direction from the president.

“We don’t seek daily validation from the White House on what our mission should be or is,” one official said. “We have clear authorities. We have budget. We’re grown-ups here.”