Democrats are stepping up their charges that the Trump administration is doing nothing to counter Russian hacking and disinformation.
U.S. Cyber Command head Adm. Mike Rogers ’ disclosure Tuesday that he has not received specific orders from President Trump to disrupt Russian cyberattacks has provoked a new round of outrage from Democrats.
“We’re frustrated that this administration has not lived up to its responsibility to do something about the Russians’ cyber action,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Robert Brady (D-Pa.) in a statement Tuesday accused Trump of “abdicating his oath of office” by refusing to act on election security.
But while U.S. officials acknowledge that Russia has not been deterred enough to change its behavior, they push back on the idea that the administration has ignored the threat entirely.
“You can’t say nothing has been done, but my point would be, it hasn’t been enough,” Rogers, who also heads the National Security Agency, said Tuesday.
The Democrats’ accusations come amid growing suspicion that Russia will look to use cyberattacks and disinformation to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections, something Rogers and other U.S. officials affirmed earlier this month.
Some say the effort to call out the Trump administration for inaction on Russian interference is part of the Democrats’ broader strategy against the GOP ahead of the midterms and 2020 election.
“We know two things: One, this is the No. 1 topic that Democrats want to talk about. This puts Trump most on the offensive,” said Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee (RNC) communications director. “Two, they want to make sure his administration is talking about jobs and the tax bill as little as possible.”
Trump has provoked criticism from even those in his own party for not confronting Russia over its behavior. He has also drawn the ire of some Republicans for casting doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election in order to help him win against Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton .
The president meanwhile has raged against special counsel Robert Mueller ’s ongoing investigation, calling allegations of collusion between his campaign and Moscow a “hoax.”
Democrats have accused their Republican counterparts of turning a blind eye to the threat.
“We need full accounting for Russia’s attacks on the 2016 election,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a press conference in February, where she unveiled legislation to bolster the security of U.S. election infrastructure. “The president and the House Republicans have done nothing.”
Heye, the former GOP operative, acknowledged that the president’s refusal to call out Russia over its disruptive behavior has put Republicans in a tough spot.
“We’ve seen time after time the opportunity to be tough on Putin and the president and the administration failing to do so,” Heye said.
Some in Trump’s administration have taken steps to understand and protect against the threat of Russian interference going forward.
Homeland Security is deploying officials to several states that have requested rigorous risk and vulnerability assessments of their election infrastructure ahead of the 2018 midterms.
The department has also been working to issue clearances to election officials so they can view sensitive cyber-threat information, though some states have complained that the security clearances have not been issued quickly enough.
Last year, Christopher Wray, Trump’s hand-picked FBI director, set up a “foreign influence” unit within the bureau to coordinate with other federal and international entities to understand and mitigate the threat from Russia and other nation states.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also announced plans just last week to set up a cyber-digital task force to “study” efforts to interfere in U.S. elections and advise him on other cyber threats.
Still, experts say the threat demands a coordinated, cross-government response.
“It’s going to be so hard for the United States government to address this problem because it is so multifaceted,” said Kenneth Geers, a former U.S. cyber official currently with the Atlantic Council.
“Because of politics, it may be difficult to fashion a concrete response,” Geers said. “You’re going to need everybody to be on the same page.”
Trump begrudgingly signed legislation approved by Congress last year that imposed new sanctions on Russia, a penalty for the country’s meddling in the 2016 election. The State Department in January said it was not immediately implementing the new sanctions, however, arguing the law was already preventing a windfall of cash from flowing to Moscow.
Rogers acknowledged Tuesday that Russia has not suffered repercussions grave enough to deter future interference efforts.
“They haven’t paid a price, at least, that has significantly changed their behavior,” Rogers said.
Several Democrats called for a aggressive approach on Tuesday, suggesting the U.S. military’s cyber operators should actively stop Russian cyberattacks at their source.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said he and Democratic colleagues wrote to Defense Secretary James Mattis on Feb. 6 asking him to order U.S. Cyber Command “to prepare to engage Russian cyber operators and disrupt their activities” against forthcoming elections. Rogers said he has received no such direction, which would have to come from the president himself.
“Essentially, we have not taken on the Russians yet,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). “We’re watching them intrude in our elections, spread misinformation, become sophisticated, try to achieve strategic objectives that you have recognized and we’re just essentially sitting back and waiting.”
But experts caution that the U.S. needs to carefully consider how Washington’s response could potentially provoke a aggressive response from Moscow.
“We do have to hold our breath and be patient and be careful not to overreact to a cyberattack,” said Geers. “You could get a military response as a result.”