On Friday, President Donald Trump finally chaired a meeting of his National Security Council devoted explicitly to combating electoral interference in the United States. The meeting, which was meant to cover all activities federal agencies were undertaking to protect elections, reportedly lasted less than an hour and ended with no new directives.
In the nearly two years that have passed since the 2016 election, a few federal agencies have taken steps to combat electoral interference. The National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command are coordinating to combat cyber threats, and the FBI has created a “foreign influence task force.” The State Department, meanwhile, was given $120 million to combat election meddling — and has spent none of it.
But current and former officials familiar with the Trump administration’s response to electoral meddling told NBC News that in the White House there remains no coherent strategy, no single agency or person in charge.
This lack of action was emphasized in Friday’s meeting. Although one senior administration official told the Washington Post that it was productive, no new actions or coordinated strategies were discussed. Instead, over the course of barely an hour, those present mainly re-hashed activities that have already been undertaken.
The pace of inactivity has angered Democrats. “President Trump’s inability to acknowledge that the Russians interfered in 2016 and that they will be back in 2018 is really hampering the government’s response to this threat,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said. “We just don’t have a whole-of-government strategy for dealing with this problem.”
Senior officials have also privately admitted that U.S. actions haven’t given Russia second thoughts about interfering in elections again, a point that was highlighted at Trump’s July summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. There, Trump said that he trusted Putin’s assessment of who meddled with the 2016 elections more than his own intelligence agencies.
Three days beforehand, Special Counsel Robert Mueller had filed an indictment against 12 member of Russia’s military intelligence agency for hacking materials that were later used in the pro-Trump WikiLeaks propaganda campaign.
“My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said during the summit. “I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server.”
The Daily Beast reported this week that Russian hackers used the same phishing strategy they employed against Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, to target vulnerable Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D). The senator said in a statement that, while the attack was ultimately unsuccessful, it was “outrageous to think that they can get away with this.” Intelligence experts have also warned that Russian hackers are particularly keen this year to target the U.S. electrical grid.