Just How Far Will Trump And Putin Go?
The longtime conservative war-hawk and now Never Trumper Bill Kristol has a piece in the Atlantic entitled “Just How Far Will Trump Go?”. With Trump openly admitting that he and his Republican colleagues can not win a fair election and clearly attempting to sabotage the vote, Kristol’s question seems highly relevant.
Kristol writes, Trump is “waging an unprecedented campaign to weaponize virtually every component of the federal government to partisan advantage. Trump is systematically enlisting agencies, including the Postal Service, Census Bureau, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security, that traditionally have been considered at least somewhat insulated from political machinations to reward his allies and punish those he considers his enemies. He is razing barriers between his personal and political interests and the core operations of the federal government to an extent that no president has previously attempted”. Trump’s efforts range from the outrageous, such as the attempted destruction of the Post Office and the corruption of the FBI, to the petty, such as using Air Force One as a prop for his political rallies.
The bipartisan Senate report released the other day clearly proves that Trump’s 2016 campaign was colluding with the Russians on a far more extensive basis than even the Mueller Report indicated. Russia is also determined to reprise that role in 2020, now laundering its disinformation campaigns through current Republican elected officials like Grassley and Johnson as opposed to Wikileaks and Rohrabacher in 2016. Trump has also tried to extort Ukraine to falsely investigate Biden, as well as directly asking China and Brazil for help in getting him re-elected. In addition, Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia appear to have aided the Trump campaign in 2016 and appear to be willing to so again in 2020, although it’s unknown whether they’ve been specifically requested to do so by Trump.
Trump has ordered federal forces into US cities in an attempt to incite confrontations that he believes will help him win re-election. He also used those same forces to attack legal, peaceful protesters in order to get a photo-op for his campaign. Trump ordered FEMA to withhold disaster aid to California as well as closing the state’s border with Mexico while keeping the border with Mexico in Arizona and Texas open, the former to punish his political opponents and the latter to benefit himself politically.
Former CIA Director John Brennan has stated that Russian hackers had the ability to change vote totals in 2016. Former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has declared that he believes Russia actually did change vote totals in 2016, although he offered no evidence to back that up. Similarly, former DNI James Clapper has also admitted that vote tallies might have been changed in 2016 although he saw no evidence for that. The reality is that, unlike Republican attempts at to uncover rampant voter fraud, there has never been a serious and thorough investigation of that possibility. As Jennifer Cohn wrote, “While voters have been told there’s ‘no evidence’ that US vote tallies were changed, no meaningful manual recount was conducted after the 2016 election because, among other reasons, most large Wisconsin counties refused, Michigan law made it impossible, the court in Pennsylvania blocked it, and some counties lacked paper ballots. In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged that it had conducted no forensic analysis to see if vote totals had been hacked and said that it did not intend to do so in the future”.
In August 2016, Roger Stone wrote an op-ed in The Hill where he claimed, “there are strong indications that Scott Walker and the Reince Priebus machine rigged as many as five elections including the defeat of a Walker recall election”. In the 1980s, Paul Manafort worked closely with Ferdinand and Isabel Marcos in rigging a Philippine election with one Manafort assistant asking ‘What sort of margin might make a Marcos victory legitimate?'”. Manafort was also an adviser to Viktor Yanukovych in his initially successful election effort that the CIA believed was obtained by changing vote tallies.
What we do know is that claims that it would take a massive effort to change vote tallies here in the US because individual voting machines were not connected to the internet are false. Vice reports that “a group of election security experts have found what they believe to be nearly three dozen backend election systems in 10 states connected to the internet over the last year, including some in critical swing states. These include systems in nine Wisconsin counties, in four Michigan counties, and in seven Florida counties—all states that are perennial battlegrounds in presidential elections. Some of the systems have been online for a year and possibly longer.”
Vice had previously reported that the voting machine vendor Election Systems and Software (ES&S) had installed remote-access software on the election management systems that are used to program the actual voting machines and tabulate the results up until 2007. That insecure software was still in machines being used by at least one county in 2011 and no audit has been performed to determine how many of the over 300 jurisdictions might still be using machines with the vulnerable software. In 2015, state election officials in Florida and Wisconsin allowed ES&S to install wireless modems in their ballot scanners, opening those machines up to the internet as well. ES&S has falsely claimed that these scanners with wireless modems, which are installed in at least 10 states, are federally certified and has been reprimanded by the federal Election Assistance Commission for claiming so. As one election security expert declared, “There should be no use of wireless modems in any voting systems or any sort of Internet connection” if voting is to be truly secure.
For years, even the least experienced hackers have been able to easily break into America’s voting machines. DHS has finally admitted that Russians tried to hack the voting systems in all 50 states in 2016. Yet not much has changed in the intervening four years. As the election security expert notes, “It was in August  that [then US Secretary of Homeland Security] Jeh Johnson convened his first call with the secretaries of state to talk about the security of election systems. We have seen none of the sweeping reforms that people have been talking about”. Any attempts to actually improve election security have been killed by the Republicans in the Senate. The most comprehensive effort, the SAFE Act which would ban voting machines from being connected to the internet, was filibustered by GOP Senator Marsha Blackburn. As Ron Wyden, author of the SAFE Act, declared, Letting voting machines still be connected to the internet was like “stashing our ballots in the Kremlin”.
As in 2016, when Trump says that “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged”, he is not just admitting that he is losing as so many in the media suggest. Yes, he is preparing an excuse if he does lose, but, more importantly, he is trying to inoculate himself from charges of cheating when he does win by rigging the election. It worked in 2016 when he clearly colluded with Russia but created the counternarrative that the election was rigged and the Obama administration had spied on his campaign. And Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting are certainly designed to suppress the vote, giving him and Republicans a better chance to win, as well as allowing him to declare victory on election night and then call all subsequently counted votes as fraudulent. But it should also be noted that a reduction in mail-in votes also reduces the number of ballots with a paper trail.
The point in rehashing all this history is not to relitigate the 2016 election. It is only to point out that there is near universal agreement that members of Trump’s team were apparently familiar with election rigging by tampering with vote totals and that Trump and his Russian friends not only had the motive but also the opportunity to do just that. Whether they did or not remains for history to decide.
In 2020, that opportunity still remains and Trump’s motive is now even greater as he faces potentially serious criminal investigations after he leaves office. And, based on the extreme steps Trump has already taken to try and ensure his re-election, enlisting a foreign or domestic power to actually hack our voting systems is not out of the question. Senator Blumenthal has described the classified briefings about Russian interference planned for 2020 as “chilling”, enumerating “efforts by foreign adversaries to destroy the bedrock of the nation’s democracy: free and fair elections”. Destroying free and fair elections does not necessarily mean that vote tallies will be changed, although that is clearly now a possibility. Instead it will only take a major disruption to our voting systems, either by hacking voter rolls, which the Russians had the capability to do in 2016, or simply digitally sabotaging touch-screen and optical scan systems so that they are unworkable, making it impossible for people to vote. When Trump falsely describes mail-in voting as creating a situation that would result in “a rigged election or they will never come out with an outcome“, he is actually describing the aftermath of a successfully hacked election.
Nearly 75% of Americans believe that foreign actors will intervene in some fashion in the 2020 election and over half of Americans recognize the government is not doing enough to protect out electoral systems. The real extent of that interference will depend as just how far Trump and, for that matter, Putin are willing to go.