Politics

Ground Game

When Trump hears about Russian meddling in 2018 elections, he just hears 2016. That’s a problem

FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testified Tuesday in a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testified Tuesday in a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

The message from President Trump’s intelligence chiefs Tuesday was clear: The United States is under attack by Russia. Building off its ability to meddle with the 2016 presidential election, Russia is not just looking to further meddle with this year’s midterm elections — it’s already doing it.

That was the assessment from the heads of the FBI and CIA and the director of national intelligence, who coordinates the 13 US intelligence agencies. All three men in those positions are Trump appointees.

The problem is that when they say “Russia and 2018,” Trump apparently only hears “Russia, Trump, and 2016” and doesn’t want to hear any more.

Advertisement

As the intel chiefs appeared at a US Senate hearing and were pressed on whether Trump had told them to build defenses to fend off the attack, the message was clear: No, he had not.

Get This Week in Politics in your inbox:
A weekly recap of the top political stories from The Globe, sent right to your email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

This was a stunning statement. When the United States came under attack on Sept. 11, 2001, there was not only a swift military response, but a bipartisan commission that held hearings and issued a report looking at exactly what happened.

While Russia’s attempt to foment division and potentially tamper with state voter rolls doesn’t look like a conventional attack on a nation, Senator John McCain has already declared what happened in 2016 was “an act of war.”

But talking about 2016 and Russia is clearly the wrong approach when talking to Trump. He sees that as undermining his stunning upset victory.

For the next nine months, anyone talking to Trump would be smart to table all discussion of 2016 and just focus on the future.

Advertisement

There is a lot can be done that doesn’t require presidential involvement. The tools that Russia, China, and others will use are social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, which are companies that can take their own steps to thwart provocateurs. Protecting voter registration, the voter rolls, and the administration of elections is a matter for states and local communities. They can take their own steps to ward off hackers, whether amateur or state-sponsored.

A coordinated effort from the federal government, with presidential backing, would aid these companies and state and local election boards, particularly by providing intelligence about what foreign governments might be targeting.

“We cannot confront this threat, which is a serious one, with a whole-of-government response when the leader of the government continues to deny it exists,” said Maine Senator Angus King, an independent.

If the 2016 election has to be tabled to preserve the credibility of the 2018 election, it would be well worth it.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp