Recently, the Pentagon’s cyberdefense commander was asked whether the government has done enough to protect the 2018 congressional election against Russian hacking. “We’re not where we need to be,” Adm. Mike Rogers told a Senate committee.
Rogers echoed warnings from other intelligence officials that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to keep meddling in U.S. and foreign elections until someone makes him stop.
“President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay here,” Rogers said. “If we don’t change the dynamic, this is going to continue.”
Time is short: This year’s primary elections begin March 6, in Texas.
But there’s been no call to arms from President Trump, who could galvanize the federal bureaucracy and Congress to counter the threat if he chose. Instead, the president still reacts to warnings about Russian interference as if they were attacks on his legitimacy.
When his national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, called the evidence of Russian meddling “incontrovertible,” Trump erupted.
“General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H,” he complained on Twitter.
The signal to federal bureaucrats was clear: This is a subject the president doesn’t want to hear about.
Here are five things Trump could do to help ensure that the 2018 congressional election is free from foreign interference - without having to acknowledge that Putin meddled in 2016, if that’s a line he’s unwilling to cross:
He could convene an on-camera National Security Council meeting to warn Russia and other foreign powers that interference in future elections will be seen as a hostile act and will draw a response. (Trump’s good at showing that kind of symbolic resolve when he chooses.)
He could ask Rogers to suggest retaliatory measures the U.S. Cyber Command could undertake, if only as a warning. Rogers told the Senate he’s not sure direct retaliation is a good idea, but he’s never been asked for a recommendation.
He could impose sanctions on Russia and Russian individuals for interfering in our politics. The law Congress passed last July made those sanctions mandatory, but the administration hasn’t complied. “The law is very clear: There will be consequences for meddling in our elections,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), one of the authors of the bill, told me last week. “So far, there haven’t been.”
He could put his weight behind the Secure Elections Act, sponsored by a bipartisan list of senators, including Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.), which would authorize federal funding for states that want to buy tamper-proof election machines. He also could back the Honest Ads Act sponsored by John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), which would require online political advertising to disclose its sponsors.
He could add his voice to those urging Facebook, Google and Twitter to flag or block foreign disinformation. Or just ask his own supporters, including Donald Trump Jr., to pause and think before they circulate potential falsehoods on the internet. (OK, that’s unrealistic.)
Since the president has done none of these things, the burden has shifted to his aides.
McMaster has uttered the official warning that Trump would not: “The United States will expose and act against those who use cyberspace, social media and other means to advance campaigns of disinformation, subversion and espionage,” the national security advisor said last month.
That earned him the president’s rebuke, followed by a spate of reports that Trump wants to move him out of his job.
The Department of Homeland Security has increased the information it’s sharing with state officials to help them diagnose vulnerabilities in their voting systems and voter registration databases.
But that’s an initiative the department took under pressure from Congress and state officials, not the White House.
Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin has said he plans to announce new sanctions against Russia later this month, but it isn’t clear whether they will be tied to election meddling or other issues, such as trade with North Korea.
The strongest U.S. action against Russian cyberhackers has been the federal indictment of 13 people on charges of meddling in 2016 - but that was the work of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, not the administration.
Trump is still missing in action. He took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, which establishes democratic elections. He isn’t keeping that promise. There’s a term for that: dereliction of duty.
Doyle McManus is a contributing writer to Opinion.