“I’m very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming election,” President Donald Trump tweeted on Tuesday. “Based on the fact that no President has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don’t want Trump!” He followed that up on Friday by tweeting that “the only Collusion with Russia was with the Democrats.”
This might be news to the Democrats, and to Russia, too. The consensus of the intelligence community, and all available evidence, shows that Russia—at the behest of President Vladimir Putin—interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump, not the Democratic Party. Trump, who as a candidate called on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton, has downplayed this fact—perhaps for fear his victory would be seen as illegitimate, or in the hopes that Russia will interfere on his behalf again. The press conference with Putin in Helsinki, where Trump said he saw no reason why Russia would have meddled in the election, only seemed to confirm suspicions that he still sees Russia as a personal ally, or at least not an enemy of American democracy.
Trump’s posturing could have dangerous knock-on effects. Tom Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security advisor, told Yahoo News on Wednesday that the administration has “no clear muscle memory” when it comes to cyber security. “And so, yes, if you’re asking me do I have any concerns? The concern would be who’s minding the store in the coordination and development…of new and creative cyber policies and strategies,” he said.
Is the White House’s cyber security weakness due to malfeasance or incompetence? It’s a familiar question under Trump, but regardless of the answer, the fallout likely will be the same. Whether or not Trump’s willing to admit reality, the White House seems entirely unprepared for another round of Russian electoral interference in the midterm elections in November. While Trump may think that’s a good thing—Democrats are polling well on generic ballots—it could backfire in ways he does not expect. And it isn’t just the midterms at stake; the consequences could be felt well beyond 2018.
A half-dozen experts interviewed by Vanity Fair in June speculated that Russian agents would likely step up election-interference efforts this year—the midterms serving, Nick Bilton wrote, as “a testing ground for 2020. Many of the tactics that Russia experiments with could (and likely will) be enacted on a much larger scale two years from now.” There may be more Facebook groups, veering either right or left; more fake protests organized via Facebook; more Twitter bots. But there may also be new tactics. “This time, for example, fake video and audio will start circulating through the social stratosphere, all with the intended purpose of trying to make real news seem fake, and fake news seem real.”
Deepfakes, or manipulated video and audio, have become increasingly realistic, and they don’t require much effort to make. The definition of what constitutes a deepfake varies, but there are some consistent features. “One baseline characteristic is that some part of the editing process is automated using AI techniques, usually deep learning,” The Verge explained in March. “This is significant, not only because it reflects the fact that deepfakes are new, but that they’re also easy.” In theory, it would be incredibly easy for bots to circulate deepfakes. As The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer wrote in May, “soon this may seem an age of innocence. We’ll shortly live in a world where our eyes routinely deceive us. Put differently, we’re not so far from the collapse of reality.” It’s not hard to see the political implications of this.
More rudimentary methods of interference are already underway. Microsoft’s vice president for customer security, Tom Burt, told Aspen Institute attendees earlier this month that Russian agents had attempted to hack three 2018 candidates for Congress. According to Burt, the hackers had employed a familiar tactic: They’d set up a fake Microsoft domain. Anyone directed to it would infect their devices and leave their accounts open to hackers. It’s similar to how Russian agents were able to access and then leak emails, to Wikileaks, from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee, and Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Burt said that Microsoft stopped the attack, working in conjunction with the U.S. government. One of those candidates could be Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri: The Daily Beast reported on Thursday that Russian hackers had targeted McCaskill’s staff in 2017, after Trump had urged a crowd to vote her out of office. It doesn’t appear that the attack was successful.
It isn’t clear that Russia influenced the outcome of the 2016 election—that the leaked emails, and a coordinated social-media campaign of incendiary comments and fake news, were enough to swing 78,000 votes. But it seems increasingly likely that there will be more hacks, and the consequences could be more explosive than John Podesta’s risotto recipe. The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded in May that Russian hackers had targeted the election systems of at least 18 states and that they were “in a position” to add or delete voter registrations. Even if hackers left registrations alone, chaos itself creates risk, and throws electoral results into doubt. And next time, registrations could be altered; perhaps even votes could be changed.
For these reasons, the intelligence community is worried. As real as the threat is, though, neither Trump nor his party appear willing to do anything about it. On July 19, House Republicans rejected a Democratic proposal that would have allocated $380 million in grants to ensure election security. Republicans claimed that the real threat came from illegitimate voters. “I know what we need for safe and secure elections, and that’s voter ID,” Representative Jim Jordan said at the time. But there’s no evidence that voter fraud immediately imperils American democracy. Most studies have shown that it’s largely a myth, and others show that voter ID, in fact, suppress voter turnout—among people of color, who tend to vote for Democrats.
Hackers threaten American democracy more than voter fraud, yet Republicans cling to their obsession with the latter. “It’s not Russia’s fault the country got to this point,” Slate’s Lili Loofbourow wrote on Thursday. “The devolution of Republican interest in electoral legitimacy has been a multigenerational journey—but one stoked by its current leader without any help from abroad.” After Trump was criticized from all quarters for his comments in Helsinki, he said, “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place.” But then he added, “Could be other people also. There’s a lot of people out there.” America’s upcoming election is at risk, and that will remain true as long as the president remains in denial about the last one.