Officials struggle to convince Trump that Russia remains a threat
Posted June 28
As President Donald Trump lashes out at former President Barack Obama for failing to take a harder line against Russia for election meddling, Trump's own advisers are struggling to convince him that Russia still poses a threat, according to multiple senior administration officials.
"I just heard today for the first time that Obama knew about Russia a long time before the election, and he did nothing about it," Trump told Fox News in an interview that aired Sunday. "To me -- in other words -- the question is, if he had the information, why didn't he do something about it? He should have done something about it."
But the Trump administration has taken no public steps to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 election. Multiple senior administration officials said there are few signs the President is devoting his time or attention to the ongoing election-related cyber threat from Russia.
"I've seen no evidence of it," one senior administration official said when asked whether Trump was convening any meetings on Russian meddling in the election. The official said there is no paper trail -- schedules, readouts or briefing documents -- to indicate Trump has dedicated time to the issue.
Top intelligence officials have raised alarm about Russia's cyberattacks, calling them a "major threat" to the US election system. In public hearings on Capitol Hill and classified briefings behind closed doors, intelligence officials have drawn the same conclusions: Russia launched an unprecedented attack on America's electoral process during the 2016 presidential campaign and -- barring a full-throated response from the US -- the Russians are almost certain to do so again.
It's a warning some fear the White House isn't taking seriously.
In a recent closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers expressed frustration to lawmakers about his inability to convince the President to accept US intelligence that Russia meddled in the election, according to a congressional source familiar with the meeting.
Another congressional source said Rogers has shared concerns with lawmakers about the lack of White House focus on the continued threat from Russian cyber efforts, particularly relating to US voting systems. In addition, the US intelligence community sees such potential threats not only from Russia but also from China, North Korea and Iran.
One intelligence official said the intelligence community continues to brief Trump on Russia's meddling in the election as new information comes to light. The source said the President appears no less engaged on issues surrounding Russian election meddling than on any other matters covered in the presidential daily brief. But the official acknowledged that Trump has vented his frustration with officials outside of the briefings about the amount of attention paid to the investigation into Russian election interference.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted Trump is taking Russian cyberattacks seriously and said the administration is taking action -- albeit quietly.
"The United States continues to combat on a regular basis malicious cyber activity, and will continue to do so without bragging to the media or defending itself against unfair media criticism," Spicer said in a statement.
Spicer noted that Trump has upheld the sanctions the Obama administration put in place against Russia, signed a cybersecurity executive order to consolidate responsibility for protecting the government from hackers and created an election commission. That commission has yet to convene in person but met via conference call on Wednesday.
But some in Trump's own party believe he hasn't done enough to repudiate Russia's actions and are pushing him to back a sanctions package Congress is considering.
"We haven't done anything," Sen. John McCain said Tuesday. "We passed a bill through the Senate, and it's hung up in the House. Tell me what we've done?"
Asked what he wants the President to do, the Arizona Republican said he should tell the House "to take up the bill we passed through the Senate. Sign it, get it out there."
The CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment for this story. The NSA did not respond to requests for comment.
The President doesn't differentiate between investigations into Russian election meddling and investigations into potential collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russia, according to sources that have spoken to Trump about the issues.
The collusion probe is only one element of a larger landscape. The FBI's counterintelligence team has been trying to piece together exactly how Russia interfered in the election, in order to learn techniques and adapt for the future. This part is less about collusion and more about Russian cyberattacks against US political organizations and attempted hacks of voters' personal information.
Former US Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns, testifying in front of the Senate intelligence committee Wednesday, faulted Obama for failing to take action against Russia more quickly when he was president. But he unleashed his fury at Trump for doing so little to curtail Russian aggression.
"It is his duty, President Trump's, to be skeptical of Russia. It's his duty to investigate and defend our country against a cyber offensive because Russia is our most dangerous adversary in the world today," said Burns, a career foreign service officer who has served under presidents of both parties. "And if he continues to refuse to act it's a dereliction of the basic duty to defend the country."
At a Senate hearing last week, Bill Priestap, the assistant director of the FBI's counterintelligence division and a career civil servant, also highlighted the ongoing threat from Russia, saying, "I believe the Russians will absolutely continue to try to conduct influence operations in the US, which will include cyber intrusions."
But the President's muted interest in election interference stands in stark contrast to the collusion investigation, which has consumed his attention. Trump takes questions about Russia personally, sources said, because he sees them as an effort to undermine the legitimacy of his presidency.
"He thinks one equates with the other," one Republican congressional source said. "He can't admit anything that may taint his election. He is more hung up on how it affected the election outcome than what Russia did."
In his statement for this story, Spicer also referenced the election outcome, saying, "The ballot boxes were not hacked and the tallies were unaffected. Numerous authorities have confirmed this."
Another source close to the President says Trump sees everything regarding Russia as being "organized as a challenge to him."
Trump aired those frustrations this week on Twitter, writing, "There is no collusion & no obstruction. I should be given apology!"
In Trump's mind "he had nothing to do with Russia," one source said. "He knows in his own mind there is not one single iota of anything that could implicate him."
One administration official suggested there wasn't necessarily a need for Trump to convene briefings on election interference -- aside from his daily intelligence briefing -- because little has changed since Trump was briefed on the matter in January, before his inauguration.
At that point, the 17 intelligence agencies released a declassified report concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign to influence the 2016 election with the goal of disparaging Hillary Clinton while boosting Trump and undermining the public's faith in the democratic process.
Since that briefing, there have been major developments on the cyber front. The final days of the French election featured a hack-and-leak attack targeting Emmanuel Macron, now the president of France. And US officials believe Russia hacked Qatari state-run media and planted a fake news story that which helped trigger a diplomatic crisis among critical US allies in the Gulf.
During the campaign and since taking office, Trump has repeatedly questioned whether Russia was responsible for the election-related cyberattacks. He has blamed the Democratic National Committee, China and "someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds."
Trump has only once stated clearly and in public that Russia was behind the hacks -- during a news conference as President-elect on January 11, just days after his briefing from top intelligence officials.
"As far as hacking, I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people," Trump said.
On Monday, Spicer said the President stands by his assessment from January. The intelligence community has found no evidence that other countries also meddled in the election, an intelligence official said.
A source familiar with the President's thinking said he views Russia's action as something that "everybody has been doing to each other for years. Everybody spies," the source said. "He believes that intel operations hack each other."
The result: Trump sees the Russian hacking story as "nothing new." In fact, the source said, Trump views it as "the establishment intelligence community trying to frame a narrative that is startling to the average viewer, but he regards it as business as usual."
Intelligence experts disagree. They describe Russia's actions as far from the usual foreign espionage attempts.
John Hultquist, the director of intelligence analysis at FireEye, a cyber security and threat intelligence company, said Russia broke the rules in the "gentlemen's game of espionage" by stealing information, leaking it and using it to try to influence voters and undermine the democratic process.
"In every previous incident, we believed they wouldn't cross the next red line. They've shown us they're willing to do so," said Hultquist, who has a military background and is an expert in cyberespionage. "If we fail to respond with resolve they learn that they can get away with it."
The administration's inaction is raising alarm with experts like Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a counter-terrorism expert who recently testified in front of the Senate intelligence committee about Russia's efforts in the 2016 election.
"It's ridiculous that nothing's been done," Watts said. "There is no Russia policy. No one knows if they can work on Russia. No one knows what their assignment is with regards to Russia."
While Trump may have little concern about Russia's election aggression, other top officials in the administration have been vocal about the threat.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in May that Russian cyberattacks remain a "major threat" to the United States, especially after Russia showcased its aggressive posture by interfering in the 2016 election. But he acknowledged that the US still hasn't devised a clear strategy to counter the Kremlin.
"Relative to a grand strategy, I am not aware right now of any -- I think we're still assessing the impact," Coats told the Senate intelligence committee in early May.
Later that month he reiterated his concerns in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"I think we're learning that we do need to take this seriously -- which we do," Coats said. "And shaping a policy and a plan to address this, I think, rises to a top priority."
But across the government, administration officials appear to be publicly confirming the concerns NSA Director Rogers expressed privately --Russia's attacks on American democracy aren't a top priority for Trump.
Former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by Trump, testified earlier this month that during his nine private conversations with Trump, the President never asked about Russia's meddling in the election or what was being done to protect the country against future Russian interference.
"I don't recall a conversation like that," Comey told the Senate intelligence committee, shortly after his testimony describing a President who seemed much more interested in making sure that the public knew he wasn't personally under investigation as part of the Russia probe.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified that he had never received a briefing on Russia's election meddling efforts -- even before he officially recused himself from the collusion investigation.
Working around the President
Obama retaliated against Russia's interference in the election in January with a package of sanctions that included ejecting 35 Russian diplomats from the US, closing two Russian compounds and sanctioning two Russian intelligence services.
While the Trump administration has upheld those measures, it has not taken additional steps.
But lawmakers have tried. The Senate passed a bill to slap Russia with new sanctions for its election interference and the legislation has moved to the House, which would also need to pass it before it goes to Trump's desk. But congressional sources said the Trump administration is hoping to water down the sanctions package, which the White House is eyeing warily.
"I think our main concern overall with sanctions is how they -- how will the Congress craft them and any potential erosion of the executive branch's authority to implement them," Spicer said Friday.
There are also bipartisan efforts underway in Congress to develop a policy to prevent Russian meddling in future US elections.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, says he is working with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, on legislation to create a 9/11-style commission to explore what happened in 2016 on the cyber front.
Graham tells CNN their idea is to create a commission made up of all experts -- no politicians. "We want to look at the vulnerabilities on cyber security and get policy recommendations from experts on how to harden our infrastructure," said Graham.
Meanwhile, top US cybersecurity leaders are taking action on their own to prevent future meddling.
"This is one of our highest priorities," Jeanette Manfra, one of the Department of Homeland Security's top officials handling cyber issues and a career civil servant said at a Senate hearing last week. "And I would also note that we're not just looking ahead to 2018, as election officials remind me, routinely, that elections are conducted on a regular basis. And so -- highest priority, sir."
Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said earlier this month that he would keep in place a decision to designate election systems as "critical infrastructure."
The designation means that the federal government will put more resources toward protecting election systems and voting machines. They'll get the same treatment as other "critical infrastructure" that is paramount to national security, like dams and the power grid.
Kelly's predecessor in the Obama administration, Jeh Johnson, made the change in January shortly before leaving office. Johnson testified last week that he wished he made the decision sooner -- before the 2016 election -- but that he backed down after resistance from the states.