When Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), an ardent Trump partisan whom the president has nominated to lead the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, was testifying this week at his Senate confirmation hearing, he noted several times that Russia was covertly intervening in the ongoing 2020 election. This produced no thunderclap headlines. And here’s the big question: Why the hell not? Moscow is again attacking American democracy, and there’s not much fuss about it. Certainly not a peep from the president, who benefited from Vladimir Putin’s clandestine intercession four years ago.
One reason why Ratcliffe’s remarks provoked no uproar is that it is, sadly, somewhat old news, for this information has been previously and publicly stated—or understated—by US officials. Last month, when the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report confirming the intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow attacked the 2016 election to help Trump, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the committee, noted there was “no reason to doubt that the Russians’ success in 2016 is leading them to try again in 2020.” In an appendix to that report, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) referred to “ongoing attacks” on the United States from Russia. And in a recent interview with Mother Jones, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, remarked that “Russian interference” in American politics was continuing. Intelligence officials in February warned Schiff and other House members that Russia was messing with the 2020 campaign to help Trump get reelected—a briefing that was leaked to the public—but, Schiff said, since then the Trump administration has been withholding from Congress intelligence on these Russian efforts.
The nation is in the middle of a pandemic that has consumed the lives of tens of thousands, that jeopardizes millions more, and that has demolished the economy. The United States is confronting a grave threat that could profoundly reshape much of the country. But if Russia is indeed once more targeting an American election, the country is facing, at the same time, another dangerous threat, one that could further undermine an elemental aspect of the United States: its democratic foundation. Those who know of this threat owe it to the public to be blaring warnings—and to tell the citizenry what is happening and what is being done or can be done to thwart Moscow.
Of course, the person with the greatest responsibility for doing so will not. Trump has long dismissed or discounted the Kremlin’s 2016 attack. During that campaign, he and his top campaign advisers—including Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort—denied Russia was intervening. By echoing the Russian government’s own untrue denials, Trump and his campaign—which throughout 2016 pursued secret contacts with Putin’s regime or its supporters—provided cover and assistance to the Kremlin. After becoming president, Trump referred to the Russia scandal as a “hoax” and, ignoring his own intelligence community’s findings, even embraced Putin’s insistence there had been no Russian foul play. The reason for this was obvious: Trump could not accept that his “beautiful” electoral victory was tainted (and perhaps determined) by Moscow intervention. He didn’t even want to discuss with his senior officials how to prevent further Russian attacks, for acknowledging this threat would call attention to the Kremlin’s pro-Trump skullduggery of 2016.
On Thursday, Trump noted that he had recently spoken with Putin and had told him the Russia investigation was a “hoax” that had harmed US-Russia relations. Trump said nothing about this conversation indicating that he had warned Putin to stand down his operation to influence the election.
Bill Barr, Trump’s attorney general, has also been mostly MIA on this front. He has spent much of his time in office trying to erase the Trump-Russia scandal by misrepresenting the report of special counsel Robert Mueller and by trying to show that the FBI’s investigation of contacts between the Trump camp and Russia was an illegitimate probe. Barr has launched several inquiries aimed at backing Trump’s claim it was all hoax—which pushes to the side the central issue of Russia’s past and current intervention. (In similar fashion, conservative media has been obsessively crusading to cast the FBI’s investigation as a politically motivated witch hunt to take Trump down, while brazenly ignoring Putin’s secret information war against the United States.)
Yet as the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated, just because Trump adopts an I-can’t-see-you stance, the danger does not disappear. In February, FBI Director Christopher Wray did address Russia’s ongoing subversion campaign when he testified before the House Judiciary Committee. He said Russia was presently engaged in “information warfare” related to the 2020 election, noting that the Kremlin was waging a covert social media campaign to influence American public opinion and sow discord. He did not get into the details or provide examples, but he told lawmakers that this clandestine operation involved social media postings, bots, and disinformation. What might be done about this? “The FBI is not going to be in the business of being the truth police and monitoring disinformation online,” Wray said. That seemed an indication that the Trump administration—at least the FBI—would not publicly identify or combat a Russian disinformation campaign that aimed to influence the election.
Though Wray presented a vague notion of what Moscow is up to, no American officials are coming forward to offer the public a full picture. The voters have only been given hints. For example, two years ago, Dan Coats, then the DNI, said in a speech, “It is 2018 and we continue to see Russian targeting of American society in ways that could affect our midterm elections.” What ways? He did not say. How was the government responding? He did not say. And that pattern continues.
The 2020 election is hardly heading in a smooth direction. The pandemic has raised questions about the ability of states and localities to conduct safe in-person voting, should the coronavirus remain a serious threat. (Imagine if a second or third wave of COVID-19 hits in October or November.) Trump and Republicans have recently been howling in protest about expanding mail-in voting. If the nation adopted an all-mail voting system, Trump complained last month, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” (Seventeen states now have some form of mail-in elections; many others allow for absentee voting through the mail.) And this week, Trump installed a fundraiser crony as postmaster general, a move that violated the tradition of placing postal service veterans in this position. Moreover, Trump has already started to destabilize the election, claiming the Democrats “are trying to steal the Election out from under me.” This is a signal he will decry as “rigged” an election that does not return him to power and attempt to exploit any chaos he or others, including the Russians, cause.
In this tense and troubling environment, Russian intervention to help Trump or promote discord could be quite effective. The 2020 election may well be an irresistible target for Putin, whose own standing in Russia is slipping. For the safety and security of American democracy, any Russian attack needs to be identified by the appropriate US agencies and, if at all possible, countered. Part of the response ought to be informing US voters of such intervention so they and the news media can be on the watch for it and understand its possible impact.
So far, no one in the US government has made this a top priority. No one has taken the steps to deliver this message—the Russians are at it again—to the public in a way that will resonate. And Putin must be loving that. After all, attack us once with information warfare, shame on you. Attack us twice, shame on us.