As the midterms approach, intelligence chiefs have warned that Russia, yet again, could seek to interfere with American elections. But the Kremlin is only part of the problem; over the weekend it’s become clear just how abundantly unwilling the Trump administration is to take any sort of firm stance against Russian election meddling.
On Sunday, the New York Times reported that the State Department had spent precisely zero of the $120 million it was allocated to combat Russian election meddling. What’s more, none of the 23 analysts at the Department’s Global Engagement Center — tasked with combating election interference — speak Russian, and computer experts to track down social media accounts cannot be hired because of a hiring freeze, courtesy of ongoing budget cuts at the State Department.
Secretary Tillerson himself also seems oddly pessimistic about the Global Engagement Center’s ability to counter social media manipulation. “If it’s [the Russians] intention to interfere, they’re going to find ways to do that,” Tillerson told Fox News’ Rich Edson last month. “We can take steps we can take, but this is something that once they decide they’re going to do it, it’s very difficult to preempt it.”
The revelations about the State Department come just a week after NSA Director Mike Rogers told Congress that the White House hadn’t authorized him to take measures to prevent future election meddling. When asked by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) whether the NSA could “do something” about foreign election interference, Rogers said he didn’t “have the day-to-day authority to do that”. When asked by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) why more wasn’t being to prevent further meddling, Rogers replied “I’m just an operational commander, ma’am, you’re asking me a question that’s so much bigger than me.”
During a press briefing that afternoon however, Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted that Trump “has been much tougher on Russia than his predecessor,” trying to explain away the Kremlin’s electoral interference as a by-product of the Obama administration.
New revelations from the much-maligned Christopher Steele show even more just how unwilling the Trump administration is to take a hard-line against Russia. According to a report in the New Yorker, Steele told the Mueller investigation he’d heard talk, via the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that the Kremlin had intervened to block Mitt Romney from becoming Secretary of State. Romney, who had previously called Russia America’s top geopolitical threat, was previously touted as a possible leader for the State Department before Trump finally gave the post to Rex Tillerson. As C.E.O. of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson had previously brokered a historic agreement in 2011 with Russian energy company Rosneft to explore the Russian portion of the Arctic Ocean for Oil.
But while the Trump administration may be trying its best to ignore Russia, Robert Mueller is not. Earlier in February the Special Counsel released a bombshell indictment, accusing 13 individuals and three Russian companies of “interference operations” against the US. “Specialists were instructed to post content that focused ‘on politics in the USA’ and to ‘use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest,'” the indictment read. “[Except for] Sanders and Trump — we support them.”