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If the U.S. wants to protect its next elections from Russian interference, it’s going to have to work around Trump

REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
The White House insists President Donald Trump hasn’t gotten played by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The prime minister of Britain has warned Moscow not to “weaponize information.” Spain’s defense minister says she has evidence of Russian meddling. The president of the United States, however, seems happy to take Vladimir Putin’s denials at face value.

Buckle up, America. You still may be trying to sort out how Russia interfered in the 2016 election, but the trolls never have let up. In order to protect its next elections, the United States is going to have to work around its president. 

The White House insists Trump hasn’t gotten played by Putin, who assured him at a recent meeting in Asia that Russia didn’t meddle. Fair enough; maybe “played” is too strong of a word. The Russians didn’t have to work at this. All Putin, a former KGB officer, had to do was encourage Trump to keep thinking what he wanted to think, anyway.

Outside the White House, tracking Russian disinformation is a growth industry. Among the first watchdogs is the Ukrainian site, which began by focusing on the takeover of Crimea and the separatist campaign in eastern Ukraine. 

In Britain, experts and lawmakers want to investigate possible interference in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, and last year’s Brexit vote. Prime Minister Theresa May told the Russians: “We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed.” Spain says it has evidence of meddling in the Catalonia independence referendum. The Danish Defense Ministry and the German parliament have been hacked.

Dana Priest, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on intelligence issues, quotes a senior U.S. intelligence official in the New Yorker as saying there had been no change in Russia’s influence activities. “They are still trying to use race, religion, Democrats, Republicans, E.U., NATO issues as a division. They are still on social media in every way.”

“We have no reason to believe that 2018 will be any different,” the intelligence official told Priest.

The website Hamilton68 provides a real-time glimpse at what the Russians are up to. A product of the bipartisan and trans-Atlantic Alliance for Securing Democracy, it monitors 600 Twitter feeds linked to the Russian influence campaign for popular hashtags and themes.

Several of its frequently cited sources appear to be U.S. blogs on the far-right fringe. As program director Laura Rosenberger, a foreign policy adviser to the Clinton campaign, and co-director Jamie Fly, who was an adviser to Marco Rubio’s campaign, note here, not all the stories are false. They highlight information that advances Russian interests. And when a big story is unfavorable, they may promote an alternate version that confuses matters. 

Trump’s willingness to side with Putin prompted this blistering takedown, not by some wild-eyed lefty, but by David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush:

At this point in the proceedings, there can be no innocent explanation for Donald Trump’s rejection of the truth about Russian meddling in last year’s elections. Earlier, it may have been suggested, sympathetically, that the case had not yet been proven. That Trump’s vanity blocked him from acknowledging embarrassing facts. Or—more hopefully—that he was inspired by some Kissingerian grand design for a diplomatic breakthrough. Or that he was lazy. Or stubborn. Or uninformed. Or something, anything, other than … complicit. Not anymore. 

As yet, it remains unproven whether Trump himself was personally complicit in Putin’s attack on U.S. democracy as it happened during last year’s presidential campaign. What is becoming ever-more undeniable is Trump’s complicity in the attack after the fact—and his willingness to smash the intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies in order to protect Putin, Russia, and evidently himself.

Citing Trump’s failure to shore up the election system, his foot-dragging on implementing new sanctions against Russia, and his firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, Frum concluded: “These are not the actions of an innocent man, however vain, stubborn or uninformed.”

If the president isn’t interested in leading the effort, what can the U.S. do to protect its elections? The effort becomes a patchwork of smaller-scale initiatives.

Priest said Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, has retained enough independence from the White House to take on a more public role in exposing disinformation. She urged him to work with Congress to make sure he has the resources to combat it. 

Rosenberger and Fly highlight the need for those who failed to grasp the scope of the Russian effort in 2016 to do a better job. 

Social media companies need to realize that stepping up now may prevent intrusive government regulation later. Young people must be taught how to distinguish trusted news sources from those with an agenda. Traditional news media need to be more careful about their sources.

The government should find ways to protect a decentralized voting system, and ensure that the Kremlin can’t funnel money to groups that will exploit divisions.

The U.S. is like a homeowner who leaves the front door unlocked after it has been robbed, they said. “Putin is trying to weaken the United States as a country by undermining its core strength – and Americans are letting him do so with next to no resistance.”

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 11/21/2017 - 02:05 pm.


    Lotsa hearsay in this article. Could the article have been written without making the assumption that Trump was involved, thus has no need to protect himself?

    “As yet, it remains unproven” means it is unproven. A little twisting of the facts?

    All of the meddling happened on Obama’s watch and Trump was not involved? What does that say about Obama?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/21/2017 - 02:32 pm.

      What does that say about Obama?

      It says that I should not vote for Obama when he runs for President.

      Oh, wait, he can’t run? Really? Are you sure? You would never know that, from all of the comments about him. Maybe you had better check again.

      “All of the meddling happened on Obama’s watch and Trump was not involved?” As you note, Trump’s possible role is unproven. The only reason to rule out his involvement is that the Russians saw no need to involve him (He would be a terrible choice for a co-conspirator. Would you think a loud-mouthed self-promoter like Trump could be trusted to keep his yap shut about anything?). In any event, it would have to be embarrassing for Trump to learn that his candidacy was pushed so relentlessly by the Putin regime. The man is desperate for legitimacy, so anything that makes his election look like something other than a massive outpouring of support from the masses is going to be resisted and denied.

  2. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/21/2017 - 10:02 pm.

    First, I have to repeat the obvious (and what Mr. Wallin has pointed out): All the meddling happened on Obama’s watch. And he didn’t do anything (or so little that it didn’t make any difference). So what does it have to do with Trump, especially considering that his collusion so far looks like a wishful thinking on the part of Democrats? If anything, Putin was trying to undermine Clinton, an almost guaranteed future American president.

    Second: What can be done about meddling, Russian, Chinese, or space aliens? What can Trump do that Obama didn’t? Bomb Moscow? War is bad. More sanctions? But is this “meddling” a greater reason for sanctions than Crimea annexation? Stop talking to Putin? But we need to talk to our enemies, as we all learned from Iran deal. Prevent Russians from having Facebook and Twitter pages? But that would be unconstitutional, I would guess, and practically impossible (“They are still trying to use race, religion, Democrats, Republicans, E.U., NATO issues as a division. They are still on social media in every way.”) So, again, what does it have to do with Trump, except the author’s desire to find something wrong with him?

    So at the end, it is telling what the author suggests we do. Expose disinformation? But that is the media’s job, not the government’s. Ask Zuckerberg to kick all Russians off Facebook? I don’t think he can legally do it – fake news must be protected free speech. “Traditional news media need to be more careful about their sources?” Yeah, talk to WaPo and NYT.

    And finally, “Young people must be taught how to distinguish trusted news sources from those with an agenda.” That is a very good point… So let’s start with colleges and teach students that they should not prevent people they don’t like from speaking there – it may help them distinguish facts from propaganda.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 11/22/2017 - 03:22 pm.

    The first thing that the newly-inaugurated Donald Trump tried to do on January 21, 2017, was to get someone to remove the U.S. sanctions from Russia. Why would he do that? To “reset” something”

    What we know, Ilya, is that the Russians made repeated attempts to influence the Trump campaign in 2016, making plays for Donald Jr., Jared Kushner, Carter Page, Jeff Sessions, Papadopoulus, and the Flynn-Manafort nexus, among others. They kept setting up meetings, having little conversations, offering help to the Trump campaign, most importantly the Wikileaks offering that was made to them months before the release of the Clinton campaign emails. We now have evidence that the Russians wanted to do more than hurt Hillary Clinton (too strong for Putin’s taste); they wanted desperately to help elect Donald J. Trump.

    About all of these Russian approaches, the Trump campaign or family members who have submitted testimony to Congress or to Mueller have lied about those contacts.

    Why would they all lie about these conversations and then admit they met with or talked with or got and forwarded emails from Russian officials only when our government investigators have other proof that they did? And, Ilya, they’ve all lied about that.

    What is yet to be seen is how deep-ly the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to “help Trump.” Maybe it was Jared helping to target fake and disruptive emails and social media posts to specific small areas of key states like PA, WI, MI? Maybe it was the Trump group coordinating the timing of the Clinton campaign email releases?

    Further, the Trumps, from Donald Sr. through to Donald and Jared and Eric and Ivanka, all have done significant business, here and abroad, with Russian and other former-SSR-country oligarchs with agendas and frequently with KGB pasts or ties. The Trump crew is comfortable dealing with Russian banks and other Russian or Ukrainian banks, etc.

    So it’s our own responsibility to prepare against Russian cyber-trolls and fake Facebook posts from RT or other Russian propaganda outlets. We have to learn how to resist all the junk out there in social media.

    But they were trying, lya. Our 2016 election had Russian hands all over it–including over our state voting lists–and the shock is that Donald J. Trump seems cool with that.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/27/2017 - 09:47 pm.

      “We have to learn how to resist all the junk out there in social media.” So how do we do it? I didn’t catch it from the article.

      “Our 2016 election had Russian hands all over it–including over our state voting lists” Can you please give me more information on this point – I mean about Minnesota…

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