White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney allegedly warned former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to keep 2020 election security off of President Trump’s radar shortly before she left office.
It “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level,” a New York Times report cited Mulvaney as saying.
Mulvaney’s alleged comments surfaced less than a week after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report detailed Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and offered information that implied the nation-state is continuing its efforts in the lead up to the 2020 election.
“On pages 50-51, the report revealed that Russian Intelligence actively targeted voting infrastructure, including software and hardware developers,” said Kevin Bocek, vice president of security strategy and threat intelligence at Venafi. “The only possible interpretation of these facts is that these attacks will continue in future elections.”
The company found last year that “93 percent of security professionals are concerned about cyberattacks on election infrastructure and data” while “81 percent believed cybercriminals will target election data as it is transmitted from local polling stations to central aggregation points,” Bocek said.
But another official told CNN that getting the White House to focus on election security was “like pulling teeth,” in part because "senior White House staff felt it wasn't a good idea to bring up issues related to Russia in front of the president."
Before being booted by Trump, Nielsen, the first DHS head with cybersecurity experience, frequently sounded the alarm over 2020 election security.
Mulvaney said in a statement that he doesn’t “recall anything along those lines happening” in a meeting.
"Unlike the Obama administration, who knew about Russian actions in 2014 and did nothing, the Trump administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections, and we've already taken many steps to prevent it in the future,” he said.
But earlier this week Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law, downplayed Russia’s incursions into the U.S. election process – contending that Mueller’s probe was “far more harmful” to the country that Russian hacking.
“You look at what Russia did — you know, buying some Facebook ads to try and sow dissent and do it, and it’s a terrible thing,” Kushner said at a Time magazine forum in New York. “If you look at the magnitude of what they did and what they accomplished, I think the ensuing investigations have been far more harmful to the country.”
The intelligence community has repeatedly warned the administration that Russia hacked the DNC and other political organizations and ran a sophisticated, comprehensive misinformation campaign by leveraging social media – and that the nation-state’s nefarious activities have continued as the 2020 election approaches.
At the RSA conference in March FBI Director Christopher Wray said that while the country hadn’t seen “a material impact from Russia” in the 2018 midterms, “we have seen is this malign information campaign” designed to “pit us against each other [and] undermine democracy [and they’re] gearing up for it to happen in 2020.”
Wray was unequivocal in his assessment of the dangers posed by cyberthreats. “Today’s cyberthreat is bigger than any one government agency — in fact it’s bigger than the government itself,” he said. “The scope, breadth, depth, sophistication and diversity of the threat we face now is unlike anything we’ve had in our lifetimes.”