Admiral Mike Rogers, head of the U.S. Cyber Command, told Congress on Tuesday that he hasn’t been given authority by President Donald Trump to head off future Russia-funded election attacks.
“Clearly, what we’ve done hasn’t been enough,” Rogers said during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I believe that President [Vladimir] Putin has clearly come to the conclusion, ‘There’s little price to pay here, and that therefore, I can continue this activity.'”
It’s one of several instances where the Trump administration and Congress have either failed to take action, or rolled back actions by the previous administration, designed to protect against future attacks, which many experts say we should expect for the coming midterm elections. Republicans and Democrats have often taken different approaches to the federal role in promoting election security, and Trump has long waffled on his views on Russia’s role in the election that brought him to office.
I never said Russia did not meddle in the election, I said “it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer.” The Russian “hoax” was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia–it never did!
–Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2018
Alongside email hacks and a Russia-funded misinformation campaign that continues to spread on social media, federal intelligence officials have said that election systems in seven states were compromised prior to the 2016 election. Hackers accessed voter databases in some cases, but did not alter votes or voter rolls.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump on Tuesday afternoon, hours after Rogers’ testimony. “This president, as I told you last week, has been much tougher on Russia than his predecessor,” she told reporters at a press briefing. “Let’s not forget that this happened under Obama. It didn’t happen under President Trump.”
Just before President Barack Obama left office, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson controversially designated election systems as part of the nation’s “critical infrastructure,” paving the way for his department to assist states with related security challenges. Some state officials, particularly Republicans, expressed concern that it could lead to increased federal authority over historically local election operations.
And since Trump became president, Republicans have generally continued to be more reluctant than Democrats to boost the federal government’s role in election security. For example:
State-level concerns. State election officials have publicly expressed concerns that federal officials haven’t shared all they know about election system vulnerabilities with the state and local officials who actually conduct U.S. elections, the New York Times recently reported. In some cases, they’ve had to wait for security clearances to review what information is available. The Department of Homeland Security has said it’s working on the problem.
Ambivalence on “critical infrastructure.” In a “national security strategy” document released in December, the White House designated particular areas of “critical infrastructure” for digital security scrutiny, including energy, banking, health, and transportation. Noticeably absent from the list was election systems, which likely reflects Republican ambivalence over federal involvement in voting.
Questions over election commission. House Speaker Paul Ryan controversially decided not to recommend the reappointment of Matthew Masterson to head the Election Assistance Commission, after he shifted the agency created after the 2000 “hanging chad” election debacle into a role promoting cybersecurity, Politico reported last week. Some Republicans have said the agency has outlived its focus, though Democrats have suggested giving it a new, specific security mission. The new chairman, Thomas Hicks, has said he will continue the agency’s security focus.
Lack of GOP cooperation. Senate Republicans declined to sign on to a report by Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Russian interference with elections around the world, nor did they join in on calls by Democrats to create a nonpartisan, 9/11-style commission to investigate Russian meddling and formulate a response.
Little action on sanctions. Democrats have recently criticized the Trump administration for failing to take stronger action against the Russian government and officials under a sanctions bill passed with overwhelming support in 2017 that’s designed to punish the Putin regime for election meddling.
No new laws to protect elections. Despite congressional hearings and indictments tied to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Congress has become increasingly divided along partisan lines when it comes to efforts around Russian meddling. And Congress has yet to pass any major legislation to help state and local officials buy new voting equipment and otherwise keep the vote secure. It also hasn’t passed any new campaign rules like the Honest Ads Act, which—though considered ineffective and heavy-handed to some—aims to subject digital campaign ads to the same restrictions as those on TV and radio.