Amplifying propaganda that is backed by the Kremlin. Spreading disinformation about mail-in voting that US election officials say is false. If it were coming from another country, it would be designated and attacked as foreign meddling, the kind of thing US national security agencies work around the clock to combat. But as the election approaches, it is increasingly coming from President Donald Trump and the inability – or unwillingness – of officials and agencies to publicly confront his efforts has become glaring.
On Monday night, Twitter suspended a user’s account after it posted what the US intelligence community had just cited as a specific example of Russia’s efforts to “denigrate” Joe Biden. The post might have gone unnoticed except for the fact that Trump himself retweeted it to his more than 85 million followers.
The President was turbocharging the very tactic his own intelligence community just nine days prior had called a measure used by a suspected Russia-backed actor “to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.”
No effective systems
The intelligence community didn’t respond publicly. Nor did any other election officials. It fell to Twitter to do what could be done to stop post from spreading, they suspended the account.
None of the federal agencies charged with protecting the November election – the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, among others – are empowered or seem able to deal with one of the most serious election issues they grapple with daily when it’s coming from the White House.
“It puts the agencies in an impossible position because it’s their own boss and how are they going counteract the chief executive of our government?” said Miles Taylor, the former Department of Homeland Security chief of staff to former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
“In the past four years there’s been a lot done to prepare the United States for the possibility of disinformation and foreign interference in the election,” Taylor added, “But none of that can prepare us for when the president may the one amplifying foreign government disinformation.”
Taylor recently became one of the highest-ranking former Trump administration officials to endorse Joe Biden.
Not their remit
“Our system is not designed for elected officials – especially at [the President’s] level – who regularly present categorically false information,” a former senior intelligence official agreed. “And so, all of the systems and controls that are supposed to be in place are not effective against this particular situation.”
Intelligence officials argue it’s not their remit. By definition they’re focused on overseas threats, even when the President is amplifying them. The Office of Director of National Intelligence declined a request for comment. On the President’s retweet, they referred questions to the White House, which directed inquiries to the Trump campaign, which did not respond.
In an August 7 statement, the intelligence community’s top election security official, Bill Evanina, said that Russia is actively working against Biden – but he also stated that China “prefers” that Trump “does not win reelection.”
That appearance of equal threats, Democrats and numerous former intelligence officers say, is highly misleading when Moscow is far more active and overt with its intentions regarding the election. But with a President who interprets talk of Russian interference as diminishing his 2016 victory, Evanina’s statement was also seen by many as a way to placate Trump.
“People are doing backflips to do their job,” the former intelligence official said, “it’s difficult.”
“This is all about people’s willingness to be fired,” said a Democratic aide on the House Committee on Homeland Security, which oversees the Department of Homeland Security and its efforts to safeguard the election. “If you want someone to come out swinging there’s nothing stopping them, but they can be fired. And this President will fire people.”
The FBI and DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) play a variety of critical roles in helping states – which actually run the elections - safely protect them. But none of those roles or preparations include thwarting a disinformation threat coming from the Oval Office.
At a Wisconsin rally on Monday, Trump told the crowd that “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.” Two days before that, he told reporters and supporters at his New Jersey golf club that the winner of the election could take months or years to be determined, “because these ballots are all going to be lost, they’re all going to be gone.”
Asked recently by CNN how CISA can combat the President’s disinformation, the agency’s director Chris Krebs didn’t respond directly but emphasized the array of tools and educational awareness for disinformation his agency has offered to the states, adding that state election officials should be the “go-to” trusted sources of information for their elections.
The FBI declined a request for comment.
Multiple state election officials say there’s been no specific guidance from CISA or the FBI about what to do if the President or other government officials make allegations about their states that are untrue.
“We don’t have conversations about that,” said Washington DC’s chairman of the Board of Election, Michael Bennett. “I would go and correct the record and say there’s no evidence. But we don’t have any plans per se.”
Trump has targeted California, incorrectly asserting that the Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, has ordered ballots be sent to non-citizens and undocumented immigrants. “Millions,” the President tweeted, “anybody that walks in California is gonna get a ballot.”
“We need a national response when the President shares propaganda, we haven’t seen it yet,” California’s Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, said in an interview. “So the clock is ticking.”
Padilla, a Democrat, said California state officials follow the same protocol to address false claims coming from the President as they would suspected disinformation from Russia or another foreign actor.
As the President has raged against mail-in voting, saying it will lead to “the most corrupt election in the history of our country,” CISA published an advisory. It did not say mail-in voting presented significantly more risks and it detailed how to best manage them. Then it warned that “threat actors may mislead and confuse the public about the mechanics of mail-in voting and leverage limited understanding regarding mail-in voting processes, in order to cause chaos and provoke distrust in the election administration and electoral results.”
To the President’s critics, that warning from CISA read as precisely what the President’s is doing now and may easily do in the future. Short of speaking out bluntly and risk getting fired, that’s about as far as administration officials can go when the President’s tactics mirror those of malicious actors, the Democratic aide on the House Committee Homeland Security said.
‘No one in charge’
“There’s no one in charge of the sanctity of elections and the provision of correct information in a democracy,” said Glenn Gerstell, the NSA’s former top lawyer who stepped down in February. “There’s nobody in charge and there’s no plan.”
There’s also no precedent.
Beyond amplifying the attacks of the primary foreign threat to the election, Russia, Trump has presented national security and election officials with another obstacle: his own words about mail-in voting and the supposed potential for a rigged election, which observers of Russia’s strategy expect to be used as fodder by foreign influence campaigns.
“Trump just gave them a gift on a silver platter,” a second former senior intelligence official said. “If you were sitting in the Kremlin and saying, “How we could sow discord, is there anything we could seize on or jump on that would really resonate?” And someone walked into the room and said, “Well sir, we have this tweet from the President.” You’d say, ‘Oh my god, thank you.’”
Election officials say that due to the pandemic it’s unlikely the results will be known on November 3. Chris Krebs, arguably the most visible federal election official, has repeatedly called for voters to be patient and issued a warning.
Ripe for attack
The uncertainty over results and the expected lack of an immediate winner on November 3 make it “absolutely ripe for a destructive or disruptive attack by a capable adversary,” Krebs warned last month.
Facebook, along with other major tech companies, met last week with Krebs’ agency and intelligence officials, and said after the meeting that in the days before a winner is named, malicious actors could “fill the information vacuum with misleading information.”
To many election officials, like California’s Alex Padilla, the President could be among them.
“You can imagine what a, a certain somebody would do in that timespan in terms of spewing, lies and conspiracy theories about what’s happening,” Padilla said.
Padilla says that much of the recourse he and others have to keep the President in check depends on Facebook and the other social media companies responding to their requests that posts be taken down. Amid fierce criticism for allowing disinformation to spread rampantly, they have tried to show lately that they are cracking down.
Two weeks ago, Facebook took down a video the Trump campaign posted about the coronavirus that it said violated Facebook’s misinformation rules. When the President on Sunday retweeted the widely discredited phone recording of Biden that came from a Ukrainian parliamentarian that the intelligence community says works for Russia, Twitter took down the account.
“This is an entirely different threat from 2016, when he was only tacitly welcoming the help of a foreign government,” said Taylor, the former DHS chief-of-staff. “Now he is the commander in chief and he’s embracing foreign interference while sitting behind the Resolute Desk.”
On Tuesday, the Senate intelligence committee issued a nearly 1000-page, bipartisan report saying Russian intelligence operatives were closer to top Trump campaign efforts in 2016 than was previously known.
Its findings, Democrats on the committee said, amounted to “an alarm bell for our nation,” both as a report on 2016 and as a caution for what is happening now. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon added that redacted information in the report is “directly relevant to Russia’s interference in the 2020 election.”
“The threat is ongoing,” said Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who chaired much of the committee’s investigation.
CNN’s Pamela Brown, Zachary Cohen and Evan Perez contributed to this report