President Trump chaired a meeting Friday of his most senior national security advisers to discuss the administration’s effort to safeguard November’s elections from Russian interference, the first such meeting he’s led on the matter, but issued no new directives to counter or deter the threat.
The meeting, which lasted less than an hour, covered all the activities by federal agencies to help state and local election officials, and to investigate and hold accountable Russian hackers seeking to undermine American democracy.
“The president has made it clear that his administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections from any nation state or other malicious actors,” the White House said in a statement.
Trump’s National Security Council meeting follows his widely criticized news conference this month in Helsinki, where he stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin and seemed to discount the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Trump’s remarks were striking, too, since only three days earlier 12 Russian intelligence officers were indicted by the United States on charges of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“It was a good meeting,” said one senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe an event that was closed to media coverage. “Everybody was on the same page. We’re doing a lot of good work across the administration.’’
There was no discussion of new actions Trump wants or of a coordinated strategy to prevent Russia from interfering in U.S. politics, officials said. Instead, the meeting focused on the activities undertaken so far.
House Democrats issued a statement criticizing Trump for not prioritizing election security sooner.
“This meeting should have happened months ago and the President deserves no special credit for doing what he is charged to do . . . by his oath of office,” said Reps. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), Robert A. Brady (Pa.), Elijah E. Cummings (Md.) and Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), the ranking Democrats on, respectively, the Homeland Security, House Administration, Oversight and Government Reform, and Judiciary committees.
The lawmakers called on the White House to produce a “solid plan of action.”
In the absence of direct guidance from the White House, individual federal agencies have marshaled efforts to detect and counter the threat. The head of the National Security Agency created a Russia “small group” composed of NSA and military cyber-specialists tasked with detecting and countering Russian efforts to target the elections. If directed, U.S. Cyber Command, using NSA intelligence, can carry out offensive operations to disrupt such activity.
Already, at least three congressional candidates have been targeted by Russian military hackers. None of the attempts was successful, according to an executive with Microsoft, who discussed the operation at a security conference last week. One of the targets was Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who faces a tough reelection bid.
“The Russians, as we know, are bad actors,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Friday during a news conference in Louisville. “They messed around in the last election. I’ve made it clear they better not mess around in another one. And we’re on the watch for any efforts they may make to interfere in the 2018 elections.”
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray last fall set up a foreign influence task force to counter influence operations targeting the United States. Such operations, the FBI said in a statement Friday, include covert efforts “to influence U.S. policy, distort public sentiment and public discourse, and undermine confidence in democratic values to achieve other governments’ geopolitical objectives.”
The FBI task force works closely with the Department of Homeland Security and foreign allies who are also combating Russia’s malign activities.
The Justice Department last week announced a new policy of exposing covert actions by foreign governments to undermine confidence in democratic institutions such as U.S. elections, often through cyberhacking and disinformation campaigns.
The most visible effort is being undertaken by the Department of Homeland Security, which is focused on election system security and has formed a task force made up of representatives from DHS and other federal agencies to share information and assist state and local election officials in bolstering the security of their systems.
Congress this year set aside $380 million to help states strengthen their election infrastructure. But that is widely seen as insufficient. The Senate is weighing approval of an additional $250 million in grants.
Also, the House and Senate armed services committees have crafted legislation authorizing the president to direct Cyber Command to disrupt Russian election interference operations. The bill, which must still be voted on by Congress, would also require the president to designate an NSC coordinator to head a multiagency process aimed at combating malign foreign influence campaigns.
The DHS has carried out “very constructive” work with state and local election officials, said David Becker, a former Justice Department official who now heads the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research. “They’re doing everything they can to give state and local election officials the tools to combat that threat.”
But, he said, that’s not enough.
“It’s difficult for them to see our president standing next to the man who ordered that attack [against U.S. democracy] and not hold the Russians accountable,” he said. “Yes, they need to detect and prevent attacks and mitigate any negative impacts, but it’s also important to deter attacks in the first place. That’s where we’re missing leadership from the White House.”
Suzanne Spaulding, a former senior Homeland Security official, said, “It’s great that they’re having an NSC meeting today, but it’s like the pop-up summits with Putin and [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un, without all the prep work being done to prepare options and tee up issues for more senior consideration.”
Spaulding, who was undersecretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate in the Obama administration, lauded the agencies for doing what they can on their own but said a White House-led strategy is important to maximize their efforts.
“You want to make sure that as you’re preparing a plan for countering Russian interference that you bring to bear all the resources, capabilities and authorities you have across the government,” Spaulding said. “You don’t get that if each department and agency is just trying to operate within their own little sphere.”
This story has been updated to include information on proposed legislation authorizing the president to direct Cyber Command to disrupt Russian election interference operations.
Seung Min Kim and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.