On the defensive, White House showcases top officials to attest to its efforts to bolster election security
The White House put five top national security officials before cameras in the briefing room Thursday afternoon to stress — as President Trump still has not — how seriously the administration is taking the threat of Russia’s ongoing interference in U.S. elections.
“In regards to Russian involvement in the midterm elections, we continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” said the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, speaking just three months before balloting that will determine control of Congress.
The rare joint appearance by Coats, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, White House national security advisor John Bolton and National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone came amid ongoing criticism that the administration isn’t taking the threat of Russian interference seriously.
Such bipartisan talk has escalated in the nearly three weeks since Trump, at the summit in Helsinki, Finland, publicly accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial of meddling in the 2016 election over the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions to the contrary. In recent days, senators of both parties have said they’ve been the targets of cyberattacks — and criticized Trump’s seeming inattention.
“The intelligence community has been very active on this,” Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, said on CNN on Thursday, but the president “has been the only one in the government that hasn’t been paying attention to this.”
Lankford, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also said that he “would be shocked if there’s a senator that hasn’t been targeted.”
The White House’s latest damage-control effort — a briefing that was not originally on the day’s schedule — occurred a week after the president for the first time convened a meeting of his National Security Council on the subject of election interference threats. The session lasted less than an hour before Trump departed for his golf club in New Jersey and did not produce any new initiatives.
Bolton also released a letter responding to an inquiry about last week’s meeting from five Democratic senators, in which he said that it was the second such meeting focused on foreign election interference and that “extensive, historic” measures have been taken. Many of those are classified, he said.
The officials spoke at the lectern from which White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who introduced them, often has echoed the president in calling the federal investigation of Russia’s 2016 actions a “witch hunt.” They did not describe any new programs and spoke mostly in broad terms about the threat from Russia and other, unnamed countries.
But they did attempt to signal, at least rhetorically, an awareness of what’s at stake.
“Our democracy itself is in the cross-hairs,” Nielsen said. “It’s become clear [elections] have become the target of our adversaries.”
Several officials credited the president for guiding their efforts. Bolton praised Trump for having taken “decisive action” since the start of his term. Coats said that the president “has specifically directed us to make the matter of election meddling and securing our election process a top priority.”
Yet they struggled, when pressed by reporters, to reconcile their clear statements about Russia’s 2016 subversion and its ongoing covert efforts with the president’s contradictory mix of grudging acceptance of U.S. intelligence findings and talk of a “hoax.” Nor did they affirm his unfounded claim in a tweet last week that Russia is likely to meddle in the approaching elections on behalf of Democrats, or his recent statement that countries other than Russia might have been culpable two years ago.
Asked why the public would believe them when the president so often espouses a muddled message about Russian interference, they had no answer.
“I’m not in a position to either understand fully or talk about what happened at Helsinki,” Coats said.
At the outset of the briefing, Sanders told reporters that the purpose wasn’t to discuss the past, but instead efforts to combat future interference. She admonished them to “stay on that topic.”
Wray said he’d set up a foreign influence task-force since taking the helm of the FBI last year. Russia’s attempts to attack election infrastructure, such as states’ voter rolls and local voting machinery, take place alongside an ongoing propaganda effort that includes “manipulating news stories, spreading misinformation [and] escalating divisive issues,” he said.
“Our adversaries are trying to undermine our democracy whether it’s election season or not,” Wray said. “This threat is not going away.”
As they spoke about the scope of the threat, the officials acknowledged that they have not observed any attempts to affect the midterm election that are as serious as what took place in 2016.
Coats said that current Russian activity “is not the kind of robust campaign” the country mounted two years ago.
“We are not yet seeing the same kinds of efforts to specifically target election infrastructure,” Wray added. “What we are seeing are the malign influence operations.”
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and one of the five senators who wrote to Bolton expressing concerns, offered faint praise in a tweet after Thursday’s briefing.
“Glad to see the White House finally do something about election security — even if it’s only a press conference,” he wrote. “Now if only it was actually backed up by anything the President has said or done on Russia.”
The five senators also jointly issued a statement, stating that Bolton’s response “does not address” a number of concerns and “failed to urge Republicans in the Senate to reconsider their position blocking critical funding requested by 21 states to bolster election security ahead of the midterms.
“We implore the administration to take this very real and imminent threat to our elections and our democracy more seriously,” the Democrats’ statement said.
Taking questions from reporters after the national security officials left, Sanders left open the possibility that the administration might support voter-identification laws in an effort to combat election meddling. Trump recently hinted at such action, but opponents of such proposals worry that they would result in fewer people being able to vote.
“It’s not outrageous if you’re going to vote that you would be asked to show an ID,” Sanders said.
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