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 at odds with statements from President Donald 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 have 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.
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 Mueller called Russia’s 2016 operations “sweeping and systematic,” and noted in his report on Russian meddling 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 U.S. Officials have said that work continues, separate from the special counsel’s now-closed investigation.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaking Sunday on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” said that his takeaway from the 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.”
Calling for more sanctions, he said, “And one way to stop them is to make them pay a price.”
For more than two years, however, Trump has recoiled when aides broached Russia’s 2016 theft and dissemination of Democratic e-mails and its manipulation of social media in an effort to sway the election. He said it was a hoax when advisers in 2017 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 advisers echoed him. Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, dismissed the significance of the 2016 interference as Russia “buying some Facebook ads.” Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s lawyers, implied that future Kremlin assistance might 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 e-mail 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.
“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. “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.”
Security analysts have greeted Mueller’s findings as an alarm call and have described them as a road map for how Russian operatives work in the U.S. But time and mounting evidence, including Mueller’s indictment of 26 Russians in connection with their role in interference operations, haven’t made Trump more open to frank discussion about the issue, current and former officials said.