The day before Super Tuesday, all the nation’s top security agencies issued a joint statement warning that “foreign actors continue to try to … cause confusion and create doubt in our system.”
This should hardly have been surprising since intelligence officials and the FBI have been publicly warning that Russia is waging “information warfare” to fan U.S. political divisions and undermine trust in the 2020 elections.
Yet, on Super Tuesday, President Donald Trump was tweeting about the “phony Russia Witch Hunt” and the “Mueller Scam,” Robert Mueller’s investigation that detailed the Kremlin election meddling in 2016. Moreover, Trump is purging the intelligence community of top officials who warn of the Russian threat.
And he is still pushing the Kremlin propaganda line — totally discredited by his own officials — that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the last presidential contest. You can bet that, in the wake of Joe Biden’s strong Democratic primary showing on Tuesday, we’ll see an explosion of fake news about Ukraine, Hunter Biden and Burisma, both from Russian sources and White House allies.
Welcome to campaign 2020, where Russia will be trying to sow confusion and conspiracy theories and Trump will be amplifying Russian disinformation — even as U.S. security agencies try to expose it. That puts a heavy burden on ordinary voters to sort out the real from the fake.
In 2020, experts say, the Russian modus operandi has shifted from originating fake content or hacking computers to promoting divisive themes that Americans themselves are creating.
“They (the Trump camp) are doing the same kind of thing as the Russians, amplifying conspiracy theories,” I was told by the longtime former director of national intelligence, James Clapper. “This is not good for any democracy, and makes it harder to detect what the Russians are doing.”
Thus, for example, Moscow can use social media and Kremlin media mouthpieces such as Russia Today to play on the fears of Bernie Sanders supporters that “the establishment” wants to rig the election, while at the same time encouraging the concerns of moderates that Sanders wants to “take away their health care.”
Here’s another perfect example of the Kremlin playbook: Although the U.S. intelligence community believes Moscow would prefer a Trump victory, intelligence officials have also told Sanders that Russia has been trying to help his campaign. Putin wants to promote divisiveness and mistrust on both sides of the political spectrum.
However, Sanders, to his credit, publicly pushed back against any so-called Russian “assistance.” “My message to Putin is clear,” the Vermont senator said. “Stay out of American elections, and as president, I will make sure that you do.”
This response stands in stark contrast to that of President Trump, who stood beside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in 2018 and said he believes Putin’s denials of meddling over the warnings of his own intelligence experts. That effectively gave the green light to future Russian meddling.
You can’t have an adequate U.S. response to Russian interference — an all-of-government response — without the White House in the lead.
“My concern is the bully pulpit is silent,” Clapper told me. “It is the president who would need to tell people what not to believe. Yet there is not one tweet where he has dimed out Russia.”
Trump’s kowtow also stands in sharp contrast to strong positions taken by British, German and French leaders on Russian election meddling. French President Emmanuel Macron stood alongside Putin in Versailles, France, in 2017 and exposed Russia’s blatant inference in French elections.
Said Macron bluntly: “During the campaign, Russia Today and Sputnik were agents of influence which on several occasions spread fake news about me personally and my campaign.” Macron’s bluntness not only undercut Putin but made the French public aware of Russia’s moves.
Indeed, no matter the efforts of the FBI, CIA, Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, they cannot adequately repel Russian election meddling with a White House that denies its existence.
Even more disturbing, in the past couple of weeks, Trump fired Joseph Maguire, the respected acting director of national intelligence, because a senior member of his staff briefed the House Intelligence Committee that Russia probably favored Trump.
In Maguire’s stead, the president chose an acting replacement, Richard Grenell, the current U.S. ambassador to Germany, who has zero intelligence experience but is a fierce partisan propagandist and former Fox News talking head. “Grenell is there to purge or directly control the place,” says Clapper.
And as a permanent replacement for Maguire, Trump has nominated Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, known mainly for his combative defense of the president on TV and social media. (He demanded an investigation into the whistleblower who filed the complaint about Trump’s effort to extort Ukraine into investigating Biden.)
Either man will likely try to quash any further U.S. intelligence reports of Russian interference.
Yet, the joint statement by all security agencies indicates that they will try, as best they can, to do their job and protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections, despite White House efforts to thwart them rather than lead them. For that, they deserve our thanks.