Earlier this month, the Trump administration rolled out what it claimed was its most serious effort yet to prevent the type of Russian election interference the United States suffered from in 2016 and is undergoing again as the 2018 midterms approach. National Security Advisor John Bolton heralded the new executive order as “demonstrat[ing] the President has taken command of this issue, that it’s something that he cares deeply about.”
If this White House were actually serious about tackling this threat to our democracy—not just trying to forestall tougher congressional action through discretionary executive authority for sanctions or attempting to give the appearance that it is doing something on this front—what would it do?
There are steps that a truly committed leadership could take domestically—and urgently—to begin to address this threat. For example, the White House could, instead of actively thwarting legislatives fixes, propose more comprehensive ones, such as criminalizing the crossing of state lines to violate privacy with the purpose of election interference and helping members of Congress and their staffs to protect all of their accounts and devices from foreign attacks, as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) recently urged. Even without Congress’ help, which has been lackluster in its own right, the executive branch could improve information-sharing with the tech sector on the latest trends and tactics in election interference so that companies like Facebook and Twitter would be armed with the most current understandings in their enhanced efforts to police their platforms. But these domestic steps, while important, can’t alone get us to where we need to be. The threat of criminal prosecution won’t always deter foreign actors, especially if we’re unlikely to get them into a U.S. courtroom, and we can’t expect the private sector on its own to defend us fully from a seriously well organized and well-resourced hostile power.
The Kremlin’s deliberate, coordinated and synchronized injection of disinformation into the 2016 presidential election cycle was at the heart of the threat we faced then and continue to face now. That was a foreign government’s assault on the foundation of American governance—our free and fair elections. If the Trump administration was serious about tackling this threat, it would undertake a robust government-to-government response. Think of Washington’s responses in centuries past to threats faced by private American vessels at sea from various European powers at different times: While the U.S. appropriately urged those vessels to protect themselves better, our government also took its own steps to respond directly to the aggressors.
An effective government-to-government response in this case would establish an international norm against Moscow’s behavior, build a coalition in support of that norm (perhaps initially through its articulation by an entity like the G-7), and ensure that countries in that coalition were prepared to act swiftly and decisively each and every time Russia or other actors violated the norm. While some have questioned whether what Russia did in 2016 is really distinguishable from past American interventions in foreign elections, we think there is a difference between promoting democracy and assaulting it. More to the point, we think that it’s surely possible to articulate at least a threshold norm to which the U.S. and other governments should subscribe going forward. At a fundamental level, governments should not attempt to influence foreign elections through disinformation, whether by spreading false information (i.e., “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Trump”) or spreading true information under false attribution (i.e., no identity theft or manufacturing). That would, at a minimum, reject the types of interference that the U.S. experienced in 2016 and that other democracies have been experiencing with their elections as well. At this perilous moment for democracies worldwide, it’s imperative to make clear, quickly, that Moscow’s democracy-wrecking behavior must cease and to ensure that countries agree ahead of time on what the “red line” should be, so that they can respond swiftly, forcefully, and concertedly when violations occur.
Violating this new norm would mean incurring penalties that are severe and predictable enough to deter bad behavior. While some have claimed that, despite Trump’s bizarrely Kremlin-friendly rhetoric, his administration has followed President Barack Obama in imposing punishments such as sanctions on Russian individuals and entities responsible for interfering in U.S. elections, in reality the Trump administration’s minimal steps have had little real impact. If Trump wanted to show Moscow that violating this norm is unacceptable, we’d see far harsher, wider and swifter sanctions. We’d also see more expulsions of Russian diplomats and closures of Russian facilities of the type Obama ordered in his final months in office. We’d see enhanced American partnerships with the countries threatened by Russian military might or cyber-meddling, and we’d see support from the White House for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s work, which has yielded indictments of Russian officials for hacking the Democratic National Committee, rather than Trump’s persistent disparagement of Mueller’s efforts as a “witch hunt.” And, if Trump were serious about this threat, we’d see government-backed public awareness campaigns alerting Americans to Russian disinformation online and urging them to stay vigilant against it. At the very least, we’d see efforts at diplomatic isolation of Moscow rather than presidential coddling.
That is a checklist of steps that would show that this White House means business. That is the basic framework for a sustainable diplomatic solution to the Kremlin’s campaign to roll back democracy globally. That is what we need to safeguard American elections in 2018 and beyond.
That’s also a far, far cry from what we’ve seen from the Trump White House. Is Bolton serious when he says that Trump has now “taken command of this issue”? If Trump is really ready to tackle it, then these are the steps we should start to see —so keep your eyes peeled. Twenty months into this presidency, and with less than two months before the midterm elections, it would be high time to get serious.