That national cry, however, won’t begin with the intelligence community and is unlikely to emanate from the White House. According to Wray, Trump has shown little if any interest in disrupting Russian election interference in 2018 and beyond. His administration declined to implement new sanctions on Russia earlier this month that were aimed at punishing Moscow for its meddling in 2016 and deterring Putin from trying again.
Trump signed a new sanctions bill into law last summer only reluctantly, calling the legislation “seriously flawed” and complaining that it “encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate." He’s called the Russia investigation a “Democrat hoax” even as his own appointees—including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who warned just last week that the U.S. is ill-prepared to deal with future attacks by Russia on our elections—have continued to raise alarms about Moscow’s ongoing interference.
General Michael Hayden, the former head of both the CIA and NSA, said it makes “all the difference in the world” whether or not the president shows interest in, and a commitment to, deterring the Russian interference.
John Sipher, a former chief of station for the CIA who served for 28 years in Russia, Europe, and Asia, told me that the intelligence community will continue to be focused on Russia’s threat “no matter what the White House says or doesn’t say.” Ultimately, though, it will be up to Trump to implement meaningful changes.
“The IC is not the most important in this case,” Sipher said, referring to the intelligence community. “They may uncover what the Russians are up to but they can’t really defend against it or take actions to deter it, unless the President supports a covert action effort to screw with the Russians, like with a cyber attack.”
“Tightening up our social media, protecting voter-registration systems and procedures—those things are beyond the ability or mandate of the IC,” Sipher said. “And I don’t think we have done nearly enough to deter or defend against Russian attacks.
Russia’s brazen campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election—at Putin’s instruction, according to an Intelligence Community Assessment published in January 2017—has been well documented. Just last week, Jeanette Manfra, the head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security, reiterated in an interview with NBC News that the Russians had targeted 21 states’ voter-registration rolls during the 2016 election—and had managed to “successfully penetrate” a small number of them. Other reports, including one by Bloomberg last summer, put the number of state election systems targeted by the Russians at 39.
Bill Priestap, the head of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, told the Senate Intelligence Committee in an open hearing last July that Moscow could use stolen voter data “in a variety of ways.”