US election 2020: The foreign threats facing America (opinion)
Four years into Donald Trump’s administration, foreign adversaries are still trying to attack our elections; they have not been dissuaded or deterred from attempting to advance their agendas at the expense of our democracy.
This is unsurprising, given that the President seems to welcome foreign election interference that benefits him. Trump not only failed to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attacks on democracy — he has helped them by doing things like denying Russian interference in the 2016 election, spreading disinformation and divisions, undermining our institutions and, a whole number of other things that seem to belong in Putin’s playbook for how to degrade US democracy.
And, Trump can’t claim ignorance about Russia’s intentions, preferences, or operations.
Having worked on the public release of intelligence assessments, I know that this information is briefed to key officials like the President before it is declassified. Trump must have had intelligence briefings about Russia’s ongoing preference for him and the ways it is conducting its influence operations. Despite this, he continues to spread disinformation and attack the foundations of our democracy despite the fact that he has to know how harmful this is to America and how helpful it is to Putin.
The statement, however, seems to draw a false equivalency between these two interference efforts. There’s a difference between a preference and an active, multi-pronged campaign. While China has been “expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020,” this is primarily taking the form of public rhetoric, according to the statement. It notes that the Chinese Communist Party has “harshly criticized the Administration’s statements and actions on Hong Kong, TikTok, the legal status of the South China Sea, and China’s efforts to dominate the 5G market.”
While Beijing recognizes these efforts might affect the election, it “will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action,” the statement says. This is a far cry from Russia’s active and covert influence operations online. This is comparing apples and oranges to a certain degree.
Russia, according to this and previous statements, appears to be the biggest threat when it comes to active attacks on our elections, and they ostensibly have the most experience. While all countries should be called out for election interference — including Russia, China, and Iran — we need to have our priorities straight when it comes to helping Americans identify the relative scale and scope of these threats.
A responsible President would call out all of these actors for attacking our democracy, regardless of whom they prefer. A responsible President would then emphasize punitive measures for these attacks as part of a strategy to deter more of them. In the hands of Trump, however, it’s possible that this assessment will become part of the very disinformation attack it describes if it’s misrepresented to spread divisions or inaccurately describe a candidate’s track record.
We know that Trump has been ramping up tensions with China and it’s likely he will use the intel to play politics and twist the IC’s assessment to appear tough on China.
If the past is prologue, Trump is likely to turn a blind eye to some interference, cherry-pick information and misrepresent warnings from our intelligence community as long as it benefits his campaign prospects. The very intelligence aimed at safeguarding US elections could become so politicized that it runs the risk of helping foreign influence operations.