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 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.
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 United States. Officials have said that work continues, separate from the special counsel's now-closed investigation.
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.
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 Rudy 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."
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.
But 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 [National Security Council] 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."
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.
U.S. Cyber Command, pursuant to a presidential directive, blocked Internet access to Russian trolls as Americans voted in November.
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."
A Section on 04/30/2019
Print Headline: President plays down threat to election security