With just over a month until the midterm elections, President Donald Trump took to the UN Security Council to call out an adversary in the room for interfering in our elections. To the surprise of some, he ignored Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and instead pointed the finger at China.
“Regrettably, we’ve found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration,” Trump said. “They do not want me—or us—to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade.”
This is only the latest example of a tactic to which the Trump administration is increasingly resorting: stoking sentiment that China poses an unprecedented threat to divert attention from other failures, including Trump’s repeated refusal to hold Russia accountable for interfering in the 2016 US election.
Foreign Minister Lavrov took pleasure in who Trump chose to criticize, telling reporters: “This time he blamed China only for interference, he did not mention Russia.”
The blind eye Trump has turned to Russia is well-known, evidenced most notoriously at the podium in Helsinki, where he sided with Russian President Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies. More broadly, his foreign policy and attacks on NATO and the G7 have played into Russia’s long-standing efforts to undermine Western alliances. Domestically, Trump has attacked the Mueller investigation with ferocity and refused to take sufficient steps to protect our electoral infrastructure. His administration has criticized the bipartisan legislation to bolster states’ election security, and Republicans have thwarted the bill’s passage before the midterms.
In stark contrast, Trump and his administration have been quite critical—and publicly so—on China, most notably in the critical language of the 2017 National Security Strategy, NDAA, and an ongoing trade war. Axios reported that the administration is planning a major, administration-wide broadside against China to emphasize that China is a major enemy of the U.S., not just Russia. Comments from top administration officials National Security Advisor John Bolton, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, and CIA Director Gina Haspel suggest they’re laying the groundwork of this strategy.
Trump’s comments on China demonstrate a remarkable mismatch with the threat of election interference posed by Russia and China.
Russian interference constitutes an ongoing threat to our elections—we know they have done it before, and plan to do it again. In 2016 Russia launched an unprecedented campaign to sow division, manipulate voters through disinformation campaigns, and target voter information in more than 20 US. states. According to the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment, Russian President Putin ordered the campaign to harm the electability of Secretary Clinton with a clear preference for Trump—an assessment with which the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence agreed. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has issued two sets of indictments charging Russian nationals, including 11 hackers linked to Russian military intelligence, with large-scale cyber operations and electoral interference. The February 2018 indictment of the Internet Research Agency—sanctioned by a federal grand jury—assesses that the disinformation operations supported the Trump campaign and disparaged Hillary Clinton.
Russia also has long sponsored disinformation campaigns and hacking operations against its neighbors—most notably Ukraine—in addition to waging political warfare on our NATO allies from the Baltics to the Balkans with the aim of subverting democracy. Yet we have done very little to adequately address their actions and bolster our defenses against hacking and disinformation.
On the other hand, the administration has not provided evidence of electoral interference by China. When asked for credible evidence of Chinese election meddling on ABC This Week, Bolton did not elaborate; neither did Trump when asked in press conference following his UNSC comments.
Trump has taken to Twitter to argue China’s tariff retaliation in red states constitutes electoral interference, writing: “China has openly stated that they are actively trying to impact and change our election by attacking our farmers, ranchers and industrial workers because of their loyalty to me.” It’s worth noting that Canada and the EU have also issued politically strategic tariffs. Even DNI Director Coats comments took a vague approach that extrapolates the trade war into an interference issue, remarking that China is “trying to exploit any divisions between federal and local levels on policy.” Later in the day, Trump compared a China Daily section in the Des Moines Register, with a header attributing the section to the Chinese government publication, to the likes of Russia’s hacking and disinformation campaign. We should take care to distinguish between propaganda and the weaponization of intelligence for disinformation.
Why is Trump doing this? Politics. Trump’s failure to hold Russia accountable is one of his biggest political weaknesses. Polling shows most Americans think Trump isn’t tough enough on Russia. His performance in Helsinki and attacks on NATO have earned bipartisan condemnation. And grave concerns of course remain that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in the election.
But the politics of China appear to be much better for Trump. Toughness on China has become a bipartisan requirement, especially following Xi Jinping’s increasing authoritarianism. Put simply, Trump may actually get away with muddying the waters on election interference because no one wants to look weak on China.
This is not to say China is not a significant challenge, but the nature of the challenge is not the one Trump called out at the UNSC. The US should more effectively address China’s unfair industrial policies, bullying of its neighbors, and relentless attacks on free speech and expression. Chinese cyber espionage poses a risk to U.S. national security and protection of proprietary technology and intellectual property in critical industries. In particular, China’s internment of close to a million Uighurs in Xinjiang requires sustained condemnation and international pressure.
If the administration has evidence of a Chinese campaign that undermines the integrity of the vote, we should hold China responsible. We already know we must shore up our critical infrastructure and require greater transparency from advertisers to combat disinformation from any malign actors.
Protecting the integrity of our democratic process should be non-partisan, not driven by the president’s desire to avoid criticism of his handling of Russian meddling. However, calling out China for election interference having not held Russia to account undermines our credibility and dilutes the case for holding Russia accountable. And Trump’s comments play right into anti-American voices in Beijing, providing evidence for the common refrain that the US will say anything to contain China. This makes it more difficult for us to advance our objectives with Beijing, ranging from better intellectual property protections to North Korea sanctions enforcement.
Trump’s approach to election interference exemplifies how politics infects the administration’s national security strategy. We must identify this tactic and hold the president accountable in order to remain clear-eyed about the threats we face.