On Monday, President Donald Trump stood on a stage in Helsinki with a choice to make. Whom did he trust? The United States intelligence community, or the man standing beside him, Russian President Vladimir Putin?
Days beforehand, 12 Russian intelligence officers had been charged with hacking Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and Democratic Party computers -- a complex scheme involving fake identities and malware run from an office two miles from the Kremlin. Putin denied any interference.
In a choice between Trump’s own intelligence network or the former KGB officer to his left, he went with… both. Kind of?
"All I can do is ask the question,” he said. “My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin, he just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be, but I really want to see the server, but I have confidence in both parties.”
He later claimed that he'd misspoken -- that he meant to say he didn't "see any reason why it wouldn't" be Russia. But Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon isn’t feeling so good about the whole thing.
“The No.1 threat to the integrity of our elections nationwide is an outside attacker seeking to meddle in our democracy,” he says. By publicly doubting Russia’s interference, Trump “made us less safe.”
“It seems to give license to those who are planning to exploit our vulnerabilities.”
To Simon, Russian meddling isn’t a he-said-she-said. It’s a real problem -- one that Minnesota narrowly avoided in its 2016 elections. This state was one of 21 targeted by hackers, and one of 19 to escape influence. Arizona and Illinois’ voter registration systems both got hit.
It’s especially relevant now, because Illinois election officials have acknowledged that the 2016 hack is connected to the 12 Russians indicted for meddling. The breached database contained 500,000 voters’ names, emails, and partial Social Security numbers.
It was all the more “disappointing,” Simon says, to see Trump stand next to the “perpetrator and mastermind” of the hacks, “making apologies.”
After Trump’s response in Helsinki, “treason” was the most-searched word on Merriam-Webster. Simon says he’ll let others characterize the president’s actions.
Talk of treason, he says, is a distraction from the real issue: protecting Minnesota’s next election. Since 2015, his office has been beefing up its cybersecurity team and hiring more staff solely for monitoring and strengthening the state’s voter database.
For a week, representatives from Homeland Security tried all they could to poke, pry, and probe the system -- basically playing hacker to test the state’s security. They spent another week bombarding Minnesota with attempts to make electoral mischief, testing the fences, looking for weak spots.
“The good news is we’ve held up very well,” Simon says.
But his briefings from the feds have kept him cautious. It’s safe to say Russia has an “ongoing interest and ability” to fiddle with United States elections. He also thinks they can expect more hacks from more sources -- other governments, or even non-governmental actors.
It’s important to at least acknowledge there’s a problem. Otherwise, we can’t prepare for the future.
The “confidence” Simon is looking for is the kind backed by preparation -- not trust.
While I had a great meeting with NATO, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia. Sadly, it is not being reported that way - the Fake News is going Crazy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 17, 2018