White House officials broke their silence last week to defend the “tough” measures President Trump has taken to punish the Russians for meddling in the 2016 election.
“He has been tougher on Russia in the first year than Obama was in eight years combined,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters, prompting several outlets to “fact check” her claim.
According to Sanders, the president has proved his zero tolerance for Russia’s interference campaign in countless ways. He notched a victory against Moscow when he helped push through a $700 billion defense authorization bill, when he “closed three diplomatic properties that were Russia’s here in the United States,” when he agreed to “export energy to Eastern Europe” and when he began to “arm the Ukrainians,” she declared.
Initially, Sanders’ comments to reporters left many befuddled. Each of the actions she described occurred prior to the filing of a 37-page indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller earlier this month, a document that further detailed the multifarious Russian effort to swing the 2016 election toward Trump and exploit divisions among Americans.
“What is [Trump] specifically doing about the fact that Russia interfered with our election and has every intention, we are told, of doing it again?” a reporter pressed Sanders, who said the administration “has spent a lot of time working on cybersecurity” to ensure “our election system is secure.”
The Department of Homeland Security, which has spent weeks conducting meetings on election interference, according to White House officials, declined to comment on what sorts of cybersecurity protections have been implemented.
“Nobody knows what they’re doing, or what they’ve already done, to prevent cyberattacks ahead of the midterms or 2020,” a former high-ranking intelligence official said in reference to the Trump administration.
The media has faced regular criticism for focusing too much of its coverage on whether Trump associates worked with Russia to undermine Democrat Hillary Clinton in her bid for the White House, and not enough on what the president has done to punish the Kremlin for interfering with the election. At the same time, the White House has often failed to provide thorough answers when asked about the president’s response.
Much of that changed last week, however, when administration officials huddled with reporters to discuss their consideration of new sanctions against Vladimir Putin and his government, and to acknowledge that some sanctions were imposed “with a degree of discretion” after the latest Mueller indictments.
“Just because sanctions haven’t happened today doesn’t mean they can’t happen tomorrow,” one senior administration official said, noting that Trump is “actively working” to implement a sweeping package of Russia sanctions that passed the Senate 98-2 last July.
“The process on sanctions is long, it’s arduous; it’s not pretty, but when the evidence is there and we’re ready, we go ahead with the sanctions,” a second senior administration official said.
Both officials defended the administration’s slow pace of action, emphasizing the need for “due diligence” to avoid litigation, or further issues with China and Iran. They pointed to economic sanctions against Moscow that the European Union voted to extend last December, claiming they have been subject to “constant legal stress,” which is something the U.S. hopes to avoid.
They also said the administration’s behind-the-scenes effort to prevent Russia from carrying out similar cyberattacks against the U.S. this fall and beyond has been complicated largely because of the media’s intense, and very public concentration, on Trump’s response.
One official said they have been “mystified and unhappy with the accuracy and the politicization” of reporting on Russia. Another complained that while Moscow has been able to quietly attack the U.S. with hacks and other cyberattacks, the president has been forced to “spotlight” everything he’s doing because of politics.
“We would like to go after these guys,” the official said, asking reporters to trust that things are indeed happening behind the scenes.
The former intelligence official said Americans will know "one way or another" if the Trump administration has taken useful steps to prevent future Russian meddling when voters hit the polls later this year.
"If we see evidence of interference nine [or] ten months from now, the administration will have failed to have done what it's now saying it will do," the official said.