“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.