Where The Trump Administration Stands On Election Hacking After The Mueller Report

Apr 22, 2019
Originally published on April 22, 2019 6:28 pm
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Even though special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian election interference was a look back at 2016, it will also serve as a guiding document for election officials and campaigns hoping to play defense going forward. It remains unclear, however, how serious President Trump will be about deterring interference in 2020. Over the weekend, his defense attorney and surrogate Rudy Giuliani said this on CNN about Russian efforts to help the Trump campaign.

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RUDY GIULIANI: There's nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.

CORNISH: Joining us now is Miles Parks. He's covering voting and election security for NPR. Welcome to the studio.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi there.

CORNISH: What do we know about what the Trump administration is doing in terms of the Russian election interference?

PARKS: Well, in terms of messaging, they seem really caught in the middle. Since President Trump took office, he's tried to position himself as a president who's really hard on Russia. He signed sanctions into law in 2017 in his first year in office. And his administration was celebrating last week when the Mueller report found no criminal conspiracy between Russia's actions in 2016 and his campaign.

At the same time, Giuliani's comment here presents a really problematic idea that tracks along with some of President Trump's public statements. Russia broke the law leading up to 2016 to get a hold of the Democratic emails that got - that ended up on WikiLeaks. And yet the president's attorney here is refusing to kind of condemn that election interference. And you remember during the campaign President Trump publicly called on Russia to try to find Hillary Clinton's, quote, unquote, "missing emails." He also, since he's taken office, has kind of seeded doubt in the idea that Russia was behind the hack at all despite his intelligence - his own intelligence agencies being very clear about that. So at this point, I think it's fair to say that there is a very ambiguous public facing, at least, policy toward election interference.

CORNISH: How worried are experts about Russians - or about Russia trying to do what they did again?

PARKS: So we know that everyone agrees that the U.S. election in 2020 remains a very real target. Here's the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, at a Senate hearing earlier this year.

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DAN COATS: We assess that foreign actors will view the 2020 U.S. elections as an opportunity to advance their interests. We expect them to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other's experiences and efforts in previous elections.

PARKS: Whether it's the Russians, though, is a slightly different question. I talked to Eric Rosenbach, who leads a program at Harvard University that helps election officials and campaigns kind of beef up their cybersecurity. And he said he actually thinks Russia may be less involved because of all the attention that's been paid to them over the last couple of years.

ERIC ROSENBACH: I'm actually now more concerned about the North Koreans or the Iranians.

PARKS: Cyberwarfare is just a lot cheaper than some of the more traditional forms of aggression, so Rosenbach says you can expect a number of nation states to be involved in this space going forward.

CORNISH: I was going to ask. Are campaigns more prepared than they were?

PARKS: I think the short answer to that seems to be yes. Rosenbach says it is at least. He's had a number of presidential campaigns call him personally and ask for their advice in terms of beefing up their cybersecurity. I think when you look at the broader picture, though, there's going to be Senate campaigns in 2020. There's going to be hundreds of House races. Are those campaigns as well going to be as prepared both resource-wise and awareness to protect against the sort of hacks we saw in 2016? I think that is the bigger question.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Miles Parks. Thanks for your reporting.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.