Democrats face a national-security problem without parallel in the annals of American democracy. The president of the United States, Donald Trump, has made clear not only that he will remain passive in the face of foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. election—a threat his current and former directors of national intelligence have called the most serious facing the country—but also that he will actually solicit such interference if it serves his interests. We know of at least one case—when he asked President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden as a personal favor—but there may well be others.
Parts of the U.S. government, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, as well as state authorities, are working to prevent foreign interference in American elections, but even with a Herculean effort, the country’s defenses against political warfare, especially in the cyber domain, are weak and porous. Such attacks are easy to execute, but difficult and expensive to thwart. The threat is evolving and will be different than it was in 2016. There are many targets.
When defense is difficult, deterrence becomes important. One way to deal with election interference is to convince foreign adversaries that the cost might outweigh the gains, thus persuading them not to attack. This is where Trump’s position is so damaging, seeking to punish interference against him, but openly welcoming interference on his behalf.