Despite doubts, Trump administration insists Russian meddling will be countered
As the midterm election season gets underway, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and intelligence officials alike have expressed frustration over what they see as the Trump administration’s lack of a clear and comprehensive strategy to prevent election interference, particularly from Russia.
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Until recently, President Donald Trump has wavered on the extent of Russia meddling in the election, but he has more recently been resigned to insisting that it had no effect on the results of the 2016 election.
“Well, the Russians had no impact on our votes whatsoever,” Trump said last Tuesday. “But certainly there was meddling and probably there was meddling from other countries and maybe other individuals.”
Critics have come down on the administration for not doing enough to stop interference, regardless.
“I don’t get the sense that there’s a whole lot being done to create a national strategy to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Michael Sulmeyer, the director of Belfer Center’s Cyber Security Project at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Sulmeyer said on the domestic level, the federal government has been working with election officials to shore up their cyber defenses and while there has been some movement on the issue, even less is known about what’s happening to combat interference abroad.
There’s concern that “other countries will join in the fray this time around, not just the Russians,” said David Fidler, a senior fellow for cybersecurity on the Council on Foreign Relations.
Those concerns were echoed by Trump’s top intelligence official in a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
“Clearly we have not successfully countered in an offensive way,” Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, told the committee last week.
Coats said Trump has directed him to do his job related to cyber issues and election meddling — but not specifically to Russian interference.
“I have discussed it personally with the president of the United States; he said I assume you are doing your job,” Coats said, adding later that he “did not understand it to be said in the context of the Russian influence on the elections.”
“Without a clear presidential commitment, this will be very difficult,” Sulmeyer said.
Administration officials told ABC News there is, in fact, a comprehensive effort to combat Russian meddling, and more broadly, foreign interference in our election systems, but offered few specifics, noting that some of the information is classified.
The officials said the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have met with all 50 states and have offered federal assistance, but said it’s up to the states as to whether they take or refuse the assistance.
DHS has teamed up with the Election Assistance Commission along with election officials in many states and has “already given technical assistance in both prevention and implementation to secure voting systems,” a White House official said.
Some cybersecurity experts worry the administration has approached Russian meddling reluctantly and therefore has been dragging their feet on any uniform approach.
“The administration has been utterly reactive, rather than proactive, and reluctant,” Fidler said, adding that the “response has been haphazard and piecemeal.”
White House principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah told ABC News’ Jonathan Karl, “There was a principals committee meeting between senior officials both in law enforcement, national security agencies, to discuss the issue specifically,” referring to Russia meddling and how to combat it in the upcoming elections.
Trump also recently met with the CIA, DHS and NSA and directed the agencies to develop one strategy in concert with each other to prevent future Russia meddling, instead of briefing him in piecemeal and separately, according to a senior administration official.
Last month, National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers told the Senate Armed Services Committee that despite what he calls Russia’s “sustained aggression,” Trump has not directed him to take any action to specifically counter Russian election interference.
“I haven’t been granted any additional authorities,” Rogers said, adding that it would be up to the president to authorize any additional action. “I need a policy decision that indicates there is a specific direction to do that.”
Rogers said that absent any new directions from the president, his agency’s ability to respond is limited by the scope of his existing authority. “They haven’t paid a price that is sufficient to get them to change their behavior,” Rogers said of Russia. “It certainly hasn’t changed their behavior in the way we need.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders pushed back on this claim saying that “no one is denying him authority” to counter Russia meddling.
In an email to ABC News last month, the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) — which represents the election officials in 40 states — acknowledged that “all 50 states consider themselves a target” and they plan to work closely with DHS and cybersecurity experts to safeguard elections systems.
Wisconsin, for example, is working actively with DHS to conduct tests to identify vulnerabilities in their systems where “DHS cybersecurity specialists simulate hacking attempts on election systems from both outside and inside the state network to identify vulnerabilities,” according to a memo from the state’s election commission.
NASS pointed out that although DHS found that 21 states were targeted during the 2016 election, an “exceptionally small number of them were actually successfully penetrated.”
ABC News recently asked election officials in all 50 states whether they have any evidence that their systems have recently been targeted or scanned in the lead-up to the 2018 midterms. Most state officials who responded — 11 out of 16 — said that their systems appear secure, with no indication of targeting or scanning by hackers.
But election officials in five states – New York, North Dakota, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Nevada — have said that while they are not aware of any specific targeting by Russians or foreign actors recently, they routinely fight off hacking attempts.
In addition, there has been movement on the prosecution front.
The special counsel probing interference in the last presidential election charged 13 Russian nationals and three Russian groups with violating criminal laws with the intent of meddling “with U.S. elections and political processes” last month.
That 37-page indictment depicts an elaborate scheme in which some of the Russians accused allegedly came to the U.S. with the deliberate intention of undermining the American political and electoral process, including the 2016 presidential election.
At a press conference last week, Trump said his administration will work to prevent Russia election meddling in the 2018 midterm elections and the presidential election in 2020, seeming confident Russia will have no impact on our voting systems.
“We’ll counteract it very strongly,” Trump declared when asked whether he was concerned about Russia meddling in upcoming elections.
“And we have backup systems and we’ve been working actually, we haven’t been given credit to this but we’ve actually been working very hard on the ’18 election and the ’20 election coming up.”