It’s good to read news stories critically, and the Times story is heavily sourced to people who seem interested in rehabilitating the image of Kirstjen Nielsen, who was pushed out as secretary of homeland security earlier this month. Nielsen has been tarred by her association with Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, which she defended aggressively, often with blatant falsehoods, and some of the leaks seem geared at portraying her as standing up for issues that the president would not.
David A. Graham: Trump’s border obsession is courting disaster
Nielsen’s career choices speak for themselves, and one need not accept apologies on her behalf to accept the story, which fits into a long pattern for the president. He has repeatedly questioned whether Russia was really behind intrusions into the 2016 election, most prominently at the disastrous Helsinki conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He still hasn’t condemned Russia. The U.S. shows little sign of taking action to prevent future foreign interference.
Trump isn’t necessarily wrong to believe that talk of Russian interference delegitimizes his win. Extensive documentary evidence shows that the Russian government hoped for a Trump win and took action to effect it. Determining whether those actions actually changed the outcome is probably impossible. As Trump has noted, there’s no evidence that vote tallies themselves were changed. But as Trump also likes to boast, the election is over. These questions may be politically and personally hurtful to the president, but they’re history, and the 2020 election looms—with the U.S. apparently little better prepared than it was in 2016.
Officials below the president insist that they are focused on the threat from Russia. “I don’t think there’s been a discussion between a senior U.S. official and Russians in this administration where we have not raised this issue about our concern about Russia’s interference in our elections,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday. In August 2018, shortly after the Helsinki summit, American intelligence officials presented a unified argument that Russia had interfered, and that the United States needed to do more to harden its defenses.
But Trump stands apart. His silence isn’t just a matter of messaging. It has policy effects as well. Trump has treated the Department of Homeland Security, which has wide-ranging and essential duties, as effectively just an immigration-and-border agency. According to the Times, this was a particular source of frustration for Nielsen, whose background is in cybersecurity. In May 2018, National Security Adviser John Bolton eliminated the job of the White House’s top cybersecurity adviser. According to former Defense Secretary James Mattis, Russia once again meddled in the midterm elections six months later. Trump also bristled at the intelligence chiefs’ comments on Russia, and reportedly sought to push out Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in retaliation.