The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) will deliver an assessment on election security to the White House on Friday, with two big questions surrounding it.
One is obvious: what does the DNI assessment say about foreign interference in the November 6 midterm elections?
The other question is less obvious but equally important: If foreign interference occurred, what will be done about it?
If intelligence agencies found that foreign interference took place in the midterms, it will pose a dilemma for Trump and it also will test him. What will his response be? Who will be allowed to see the report? What will he do to get more people and agencies involved in responding to the report’s findings?
Trump of course has been heavily criticized for letting foreign countries interfere in U.S. elections and doing very little to prevent it or respond to it. He is widely seen as allowing our adversaries to meddle in elections, and refusing to fight against it or impose any penalties.
One of the president’s critics is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who said on Wednesday:
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Russia’s influence efforts are ongoing. They view it as part of their broader strategy, it’s a key part of their tactics they use around the world.”
“I’ll wait for the DNI to issue their report on the findings, but I think you’ll find that they were less successful but nonetheless active.”
The office of the DNI has confirmed that the intelligence community will submit its assessment on election interference to the White House on Friday, but they did not say whether the report will be made public.
If the report is critical of the government and of the Trump administration efforts to fight foreign interference, will Trump bury the report? Will he ignore its findings?
Most Washington observers believe that intelligence officials will conclude that there has been substantial foreign meddling.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is on his way out due to disputes with the president on policy, said earlier this month that he believes Russia had interfered in the midterm elections. And in his position, he may have seen classified information proving this. Earlier in the year he said he would deploy military forces to protect election systems, which is something Trump never approved.
It’s possible that a difference of opinion with President Trump about what to do in response to foreign election interference led Mattis to lose his job as Defense Secretary.
And shortly before November 6, federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment against a Russian national, Maria Butina. She was charged with operating an influence campaign against U.S. elections, including the 2018 midterms.
Several members of Congress said this week that they believe that Russia did interfere in the midterms, but not to the extent that it interfered in the 2016 election.
Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2016, said:
“Let’s see what they report happened, let’s see how resilient we were and then we’ll decide what next steps are.”
Kaine pointed out that Congress appropriated $380 million for election security this year, but that money came too late for many states to use it before the midterms to secure their elections.
Congress also failed to pass any election security legislation which required federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security to take the lead on securing state election systems.
Most Democrats and a few Republicans have been very critical of Trump’s efforts, saying he hasn’t done anything to fight Russian election interference. So the spotlight will be on him to see how he responds to the new DNI assessment.
After the DNI report is sent to the White House, acting Attorney General Michael Whitaker and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen will have 45 days to write their own reports determining the extent of the interference.
The Treasury Department may submit a final report to Congress, but is not required to do so.
Democrats have not said what actions they would take if Russia is found to have meddled in the 2018 midterms.
Sen. Gary Peters, (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said that while a response to be made if interference took place, Congress also should pass a bill to help state officials keep their voting systems secure.
“It depends on what comes out on the report, but I think that there’s no question that Russians have been actively involved in attempts to influence elections,” Peters said. “We need to continue to be vigilant and safeguard the state apparatus for elections, as well as some of the information campaigns that Russians are engaged in.”