What Trump’s Cybersecurity Flip-Flop Reveals

Days after announcing a cybersecurity agreement with Russia, the president declared it dead. Meanwhile, his government has taken no action to safeguard U.S. elections.

Donald Trump greets Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Donald Trump greets Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Jim Lo Scalzo / Reuters)

Donald Trump’s grand plan for a joint cybersecurity team with Russia ended even before it began.

On Friday, after his unexpectedly long meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, both sides said they were going to work together on cybersecurity issues.

“The two leaders … agreed to explore creating a framework around which the two countries can work together to better understand how to deal with these cyber threats, both in terms of how these tools are used to in interfere with the internal affairs of countries, but also how these tools are used to threaten infrastructure, how these tools are used from a terrorism standpoint as well,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters after the closed-door session.

That idea was briefly overshadowed by questions over whether Trump accepted Russian denial of interfering in the election (it increasingly appears that he did). But the concept of a joint panel on security seemed comical on face—a bit like the FBI and Willie Sutton agreeing to discuss bank security by way of moving on from Sutton’s (alleged!) hold-ups, or as Senator Marco Rubio put it, like partnering with Bashar al-Assad to fight chemical weapons.

Nonetheless, Trump tweeted that the new system would be “impenetrable,” and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin gamely defended the step during an appearance on ABC’s This Week on Sunday.

“I think this is a very important step forward that what we want to make sure is that we coordinate with Russia, that we're focused on cybersecurity together, that we make sure that they never interfere in any democratic elections or conduct any cybersecurity,” Mnuchin said, in what nearly approximated a coherent rationale.

Mnuchin confusingly likened it to military exercises with an ally, even though Russia is not an ally, and even though the U.S. doesn’t do military exercises with countries that the government believes have attacked it recently. He added: “This is about having capabilities to make sure that we both fight cyber together, which I think is a very significant accomplishment for President Trump.”

Mnuchin quickly learned, as many other aides have, that the most dangerous task in the Trump administration is defending the last thing the president said, since he’s liable to undercut you immediately. Lo and behold, Trump declared the idea dead on Sunday.

With the economy of 140 characters, Trump decided that embarrassing his secretaries of state and treasury was worth it to end the mockery. One makes the decisions one has to make.

One of the few things that could be said for the abortive joint task force was that at least it represented a concrete step by the administration to address election security. (As Henry Farrell lays out at The Washington Post, there are cases where tentative collaboration with a cybersecurity adversary makes sense, though based on what little we know, the Trump-Putin plan didn’t seem to fit that description.) Even if, like the president, one rejects the conclusion that Russia, or Russia alone, interfered, the hacking of John Podesta and of the Democratic National Committee is established fact. Yet the executive branch seems uninterested in any material efforts to reinforce cybersecurity.

This stands in marked contrast to the question of “voter fraud.” While there is hard evidence of a widespread effort to interfere in elections by hacking private accounts and spreading misinformation, the Trump administration has taken little action beyond a strange trial balloon of a joint panel with Russia. Meanwhile, despite no evidence of significant fraudulent voting in 2016 (or any other election), the White House created a panel titularly co-chaired by the vice president that is seeking reams of personal data from states about their voter rolls, so sweeping a request that Republican state elections officials have bristled.

The abortive joint task force follows a trend in which the Trump White House behaves like a kid crashing on a big report the day before it’s due. When Trump announced that the White House would produce a tax plan the following week, surprising advisers, they ended up with a vague 100-word outline. When Trump accused President Obama of surveilling him, the president demanded that Congress investigate, rather than conceding he had no evidence.

But whereas tax reform is a question that has been circulating for decades in Washington, and whereas the “wiretap” scandal is illusory, the threat to electoral integrity is real. While all evidence suggests that the Russians, or whoever interfered in the 2016 election, didn’t change votes, experts also believe that they could. With a potentially pivotal congressional election looming in 17 months, and primaries before that, this isn’t a theoretical question.

When the Obama Department of Homeland Security offered assistance to states to fend off cyberattacks before the 2016 election, some state officials viewed it as a power grab by the federal government, seeking to centralize control over elections. Other states were simply not interested, then-Secretary Jeh Johnson recently recalled.

Now, however, state election officials are sounding the alarm about security in 2018. The Associated Press reports that at a gathering of state secretaries of state, there was bipartisan frustration at “a lack of information from federal intelligence officials on allegations of Russian meddling with the vote. They say that despite the best efforts by federal officials, it may be too late in to make substantive changes.” The signals coming from the Trump administration suggest that not only will there be little assistance ahead of the election, but there’s little interest in putting together a substantive, better-late-than-never response. The motivation seems to be political: Trump is so invested in questioning the consensus about Russian interference and asserting his legitimacy as elected president that any steps he takes to acknowledge interference in the 2016 election would undercut his political goals. State officials might have better luck partnering with Moscow.