Trump Is Aiding And Abetting Foreign Election Interference

While Russia, China, and Iran are targeting American democracy, Trump has refused to take action and has downplayed the threat.
President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Former Sergey Kislyak (AP)

President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Former Sergey Kislyak (AP)

In 2016, the United States faced an unprecedented level of foreign interference, as Russia launched cyberattacks and a disinformation campaign in an effort to influence the way people voted in the presidential election. At the time, and in the aftermath, there were warnings from across the political spectrum, and from technology experts and intelligence analysts, that, without immediate action from Congress and the White House, America would be susceptible to a repeat of such interference in 2020. Now we’re seeing how those fears are coming true.

Microsoft has warned that Russian hackers are attempting to spy on both the Trump and Biden campaigns, China is targeting the Biden campaign, and Iran has targeted the Trump Administration. Due to the Trump administration’s inaction, America’s democracy is, once again, under siege from foreign actors who are seeking to reveal potentially compromising material and sow chaos and discord.

When Donald Trump took office, as the 45th President of the United States, he swore an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”. However, within days of taking office, instead of focusing on protecting America’s vulnerabilities from being further exploited, Trump immediately decided to politicize the issue of election interference, labeling claims that Russia meddled in the election as a “hoax”. When the country needed a leader to unite people and protect the country, Trump refused and, instead, created a partisan atmosphere. Trump has also gone further, openly soliciting foreign election interference from Russia, Ukraine (which got him impeached), and China.

There are those who believe that Trump’s inaction is because he is willing to look the other way since he was the beneficiary of foreign meddling in 2016, he believes any election interference this cycle will ultimately help to re-elect him. While that is likely the case given the Intelligence Community’s findings that Russia is seeking to help Trump win again, Trump’s selfish thinking is naïve and short-sighted.

The reality is that election interference and disinformation campaigns organized by foreign state actors are not partisan. Countries that engage in targeted actions of this nature aren’t necessarily doing so because they believe in one political ideology over another. They are doing so to further their own interests, whether that is electing someone they consider to be friendly to their cause, or who might be weak on certain issues, or who could be susceptible to manipulation, etc.

Whilst a politician might receive support in one election, in the next voting cycle, it might be their opponents who gain an advantage. Whoever is responsible for the interference, and whatever their motivations, distorting the results of an election produces an outcome that is contrary to the will of the electorate. Clearly, that should be very troubling for the leaders, and potential leaders, of any democratic country.

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The attitude from the White House set an example for the rest of the Republican Party. Thus, when it comes to election security, Republican politicians are encouraged by the President to oppose, disrupt or delay attempts to implement infrastructure that could protect the democratic processes. Back in February 2020, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) added to the long list of legislation that he’s rallied his colleagues to defeat, as Senate Republicans blocked three bills relating to election security that Democrats had sought to unanimously pass. The legislation would have required political campaigns to alert the FBI and the Federal Election Commission about offers of foreign assistance, as well as providing more public funding for election costs and banning voting machines from being connected to the internet.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has repeatedly passed election security legislation but, due to Trump’s influence, it keeps hitting a wall in the GOP-controlled Senate. The Republican Party and the President aren’t just stalling election security legislation, they are being clear that they are open to foreign assistance. Given that Trump faced impeachment proceedings over his scheme to secure foreign support for political gain, it might be thought that, thereafter, he would exercise more care or, as Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) claimed at the time, he would have learned his lesson. Neither seems to be applicable. Having been cleared by the Senate in the impeachment process, protected by McConnell’s control of the chamber, Trump became emboldened and America is now paying the price for that.

Even at the highest levels of the Department of Homeland Security, which, on its own website, states its purpose is “…to secure the nation from the many threats we face”, Trump’s handpicked Acting Secretary Chad Wolf has been accused of covering up the true scale of the threat. Brian Murphy, a whistle-blower at the DHS, claims he was demoted in August for refusing to participate in plans to fabricate or downplay intelligence to match Trump’s rhetoric.

Murphy claims that Wolf told him to “…cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the United States and, instead, start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran.”. Wolf purportedly said that reports of Russian interference “made the president look bad”. Wolf’s orders are said to have come directly from Trump’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.

Murphy stated he would not comply as he believes: “Doing so would put the country in substantial and specific danger.”. Why does it take a whistle-blower at the DHS to fulfill the agency’s mission? Should the Acting Secretary not have been the individual who stood up to the White House, or is he simply there as Trump’s puppet? Americans should be concerned about how an agency that is meant to protect them is being used to manipulate the truth to fit the incumbent president’s agenda. It doesn’t just reflect how the Trump administration is failing to ensure that the democratic process in America is secure; it fundamentally undermines the credibility of the DHS.

Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, has been vocal about his thoughts on the issue of election security. Recently, he warned that “of the content on social media today regarding reopen America campaigns and messaging research suggests 60% to 70% of that is foreign-based propaganda”. Social media has become the frontline of the war on disinformation. However, Trump has shown little interest in working with tech companies to address this. In fact, his quarrel with social media companies is not about the influence that foreign powers are having on online political debate. Instead, he took to Twitter to falsely claim that “Social Media Platforms totally silence conservative voices.”

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In recent months, the Trump administration has lashed out at TikTok for their alleged misuse of data collected from users. Why does Trump care passionately about fighting one tech company, whilst allowing the leader of a foreign nation to orchestrate attacks on US individuals and organizations? The answer is simple. TikTok is a Chinese-owned company, and Trump has sought political gain from creating conflict with China. In contrast, Trump has consistently favored Russia, repeatedly pandering to Vladimir Putin and refusing to challenge him for behavior that any other US president would have considered egregious.

In fact, President Trump has been on message with Russian disinformation on matters ranging from Russia’s alleged bounties on US troops, to Biden’s health, to false claims of voter fraud. Attorney General William Barr has repeatedly tried to cast doubt on the Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the election at all. This extends into the Republican Party as well. Republican Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) is running a Biden probe that is based on pro-Russia disinformation.

Election interference should not be a political or partisan issue. It should not be something that one side of the political divide is left to fight against, while the other side undermines all efforts to eradicate the problem. America is a nation that was founded on the fight for democracy, the fight for the right to of each and every citizen to have their voice heard. In order to fulfill that founding mission, America needs a strong and stable democratic process.

That’s why all Americans should be concerned by what has been allowed to occur over the last few years, furious that the US has, intentionally, been left vulnerable by its current political leaders, resulting in the country being susceptible to manipulation by malign foreign interference. It might be too late now for Congress to force the White House to protect the election in November, as states start to receive mail-in ballots and begin early voting, but that doesn’t mean that the fight is over or that this issue can be overlooked.

Four years of wilful and destructive inaction by the Trump administration has empowered other nations to attempt to interfere in American elections. Four more years of inaction could leave America seriously weakened and vulnerable to increasingly destructive cyber attacks. This election might be, on the face of it, a battle between two political candidates but, even on this issue alone, it’s a case of two potential futures for the United States. Are voters happy with an election process that can be manipulated by foreign governments with bad intentions, or do they want to fight for America’s proud legacy of democracy? As they head to the ballot box, those voters have to ask themselves: ‘What kind of future do we want for the United States?’

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Opinion // 2020 / China / Donald Trump / Elections / Iran / Republican Party / Russia / Russian Interference