Editor’s Note: CNN analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of “Security Mom: My Life Protecting the Home and Homeland.” She is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration and CEO of Zemcar. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
We saw a forceful turnabout from officials in the White House briefing room Thursday on the issue of interference in the US political system.
It was a united front. It was necessary. And it was inconclusive.
Trump’s senior national security team – including FBI Director Christopher Wray, national security adviser John Bolton and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats – told reporters from the podium that Russian interference in our democratic process was ongoing and that the government was doing everything it could to stop it.
“We acknowledge the threat. It is real. It is continuing,” said Coats “We are doing everything we can to have a legitimate election that everyone can have trust in.”
There are all sorts of ways for a nation to defend itself, such as with military action, covert operations and law enforcement efforts. But another tool can be saying out loud to potential enemies that a certain action will not be tolerated. So the words Thursday that our “democracy itself is in the crosshairs” were both ominous and necessary. They should be applauded.
The briefing was essentially a statement to Russia that – despite what the President says about questioning Russia’s influence in 2016 or whether the investigation into that interference is a “witch hunt” – the national security team is on the lookout.
We do not know what prompted this press conference, but it put a dent into what might be called “come hither” collusion. There has been considerable debate about the nature of the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia during the campaign for the 2016 election (and anyway, as our President insisted on Twitter, “collusion is not a crime”).
But in 2018, a different type of nefarious flirtation was beginning to form, one that seemed like a welcome mat to Russia to interfere once again, this time in midterm elections.
This “come hither” stance with Russia begins with Trump’s failures to even acknowledge Russia’s direct engagement in a hostile act against our democracy and his seeming acceptance of Vladimir Putin’s denials. It continued with the failure of the White House to designate a single person to be in charge of protecting the 2018 elections (Bolton ended the White House cybercoordinator position in May).
Russia likely took comfort in the Senate’s failure to expend additional resources to fund state and local preparedness. And we have learned recently that Russian hackers have infiltrated our electric grid, potentially giving them the ability to cause havoc on Election Day.
From the perspective of Russia, this lack of engagement by the national security team would likely be viewed as a signal that, at the very least, the United States has no strategy to fend off attacks on the election process. Despite what Bolton and press secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday – that Trump has “made it very clear” that election security is a priority – Trump has held only two White House meetings on election security. One was last week and lasted around 30 minutes.
Thursday’s press conference was a counter to Trump’s lack of signaling. It may not be enough; it may all fall apart with a Trump tweet. But, up until now, we have been living in an America vulnerable to a continuing foreign hostility campaign against our democracy and no one at the very highest reaches of our government seemed to notice.
The question that remains is, of course, whether a war can be waged without the commander in chief’s full engagement. That is essentially what Trump’s national security team now wants us to believe.
It is the same sentiment expressed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who testified last week that we should judge our diplomacy by actions, such as Russian sanctions, more than Trump’s words or sentiments.
America deserves better than a President wholly disengaged from the threats the nation faces. But before the unified front we saw Thursday, Putin had the upper hand as this nation heads quickly into election season. Can the United States level the battleground against Russia without the commander in chief leading the charge?
It’s an unfortunate question to have to ask, but let’s hope the answer is yes.