When President Donald Trump convened his Cabinet at the White House Wednesday as Washington absorbed news of a massive data breach, the heads of most agencies relevant to the intrusion — including the Department of Defense, the State Department, the Justice Department, the director of national intelligence and the Central Intelligence Agency — were absent.
After the meeting, Trump said nothing about the attack, which went undetected by his administration’s intelligence agencies for months. As those agencies now mobilize to assess the damage — which the government said Thursday could be more widespread than initially thought, posing a “grave risk to the federal government” — the President himself remains silent on the matter, preoccupied instead with his election loss and his invented claims of widespread voter fraud.
The massive data breach, revealed in the final weeks of Trump’s administration, amounts to a dramatic coda for a presidency clouded by questions of deference to Russia and unsuccessful attempts to warm relations with its President, Vladimir Putin. Just as he has largely ignored the latest surge in coronavirus cases, Trump appears to have all but abdicated responsibility in his final weeks in office.
The White House has not listed an intelligence briefing on the President’s daily schedule since early October, though officials say he is regularly briefed on intelligence even when a formal briefing doesn’t appear on his calendar and a senior White House official told CNN that Trump was briefed on the hack by his top intelligence officials on Thursday.
Members of President-elect Joe Biden’s staff were also briefed by officials on the massive intrusion, an official from the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said. Biden himself has also been given details in his daily classified briefing, which has been listed on his public schedule each day this week.
“Our adversaries should know that, as President, I will not stand idly by in the face of cyber assaults on our nation,” Biden said in a statement on Thursday, making no specific mention of Trump or his administration, but also not naming Russia as the culprit.
The wide-ranging and extraordinary intrusion by suspected Russian hackers of US government systems has launched a technical soul-searching mission among the government’s leading cyber officials and outside experts over how this months-long, ongoing cyber campaign managed to go undetected for so long.
It wasn’t until Wednesday night that the US government formally acknowledged that the ongoing cyber campaign was still active. The revelation comes at a particularly fraught time during a divisive presidential transition and after an election that had been, by all accounts, free of foreign interference.
It’s unclear when, if at all, Trump may have been briefed on the latest hack. Nor is it clear how engaged Trump has been in responding. He has left all public responses to members of his Cabinet and administration. And despite a healthy pace of tweets about the election results and his false claims of voter fraud, he has not issued any message about the hack.
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican who has been a frequent Trump critic, said Thursday it was “stunning” Trump had not responded yet.
“I think the White House needs to say something aggressive about what happened,” Romney said. “This is almost as if you had a Russian bomber flying undetected over the country, including over the nation.”
Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien did cut short a trip to Europe to return to Washington for urgent meetings on the hack earlier this week, and the White House has convened daily discussions with national security agencies related to the intrusion, according to people familiar with the matter.
The House and Senate Intelligence Committees were briefed on the issue Wednesday, but lawmakers have since made clear that there are still more questions than answers.
“(The) dirty fact is most entities don’t know they’ve been hacked,” Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN Thursday.
Senate Republicans on Thursday said they didn’t see an issue in Trump’s silence while his administration works to get to the bottom of the matter.
“There’s still information gathering occurring, so I’d caution anyone reaching conclusions or making pronouncements until all that is in,” said Senate Intelligence Chairman Marco Rubio. “I think there’s a lot that still needs to be learned about it. I would caution anyone from speaking out too much about something when there’s still a lot of facts being gathered.
‘A very big deal’
Sen. Josh Hawley, who sits on Senate Armed Services, says he hasn’t been briefed on the hack. “I’m fine with what they said publicly,” he said of the administration. “It’s a very big deal. And we certainly need to learn more … I’m really concerned about it.”
Asked if Trump should address this publicly, Hawley said: “I think the most important thing is to get report out and let us know the extent of the breach is. They may be trying to figure that out.”
While Trump has not said anything about the attack, his former homeland security adviser Tom Bossert urged the President in an op-ed to formally attribute responsibility and, if Russia is confirmed behind it, “make it clear to Vladimir Putin that these actions are unacceptable.”
Trump is also threatening to veto the National Defense Authorization Act over a provision requiring renaming of military bases named for Confederate leaders and because he wants a provision added to reform liability laws for social media companies like Twitter. The defense policy bill includes provisions that would help the US government address cyber threats.
“We have provisions in the bill that he needs in case the hacking, the cyber threats that are out there,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe said of Trump and the NDAA, which he has shepherded. But Inhofe, who has been briefed on the hack, said he wouldn’t criticize Trump for failing to speak out.
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat on the panel, also hasn’t been briefed yet but said he is trying to set one up for himself for Friday.
“I think he should, but frankly I don’t think he will,” Kaine said when asked if Trump should address it forcefully. “I don’t think we will probably get a straight answer about the depths of this and what we need to do counter it until the new administration is in place.”
As the contours of the data breach are still coming into view, the incident underscores how little Trump’s efforts to court Putin have done to improve relations with Moscow over the past four years. Even as he frustrated his own advisers by delaying punitive measures and attempting to befriend his Russian counterpart, Trump ends his term confronted with one Russia’s most brazen attempts to date at infiltrating American systems.
That is much like how Trump began his presidency, when American intelligence agencies assessed Russia had worked to influence the 2016 presidential election on Trump’s behalf. The President’s unwillingness to confront Russia on that front, or issue any warnings to Putin to not do interfere again, have fueled the impression among his critics that he is soft on Putin.
A tweet Trump issued in 2017, following his first meeting with Putin on the sidelines of a G7 meeting in Hamburg, has now come to exemplify the naiveté with which many in Congress and even inside the administration say Trump approached Russia.
“Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded,” he wrote then, an idea that was mocked at the time and never came to fruition.
While Putin was one of the last world leaders to recognize Biden as the victor of the US election, he did finally acknowledge the President-elect’s win this week, saying in a message he was “ready for contacts and interactions with you.”
“We need an honest reset in terms of relationships between the United States and Russia,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, said on Wednesday. “We can’t be buddies with Vladimir Putin and have him at the same time making this kind of cyber attack on America. This is virtually a declaration of war by Russia on the United States, and we should take it that seriously.”
It wasn’t only election meddling that failed to draw condemnation from the President; he did not raise with Putin the issue of Russia placing bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan when he spoke to him over the summer — another issue that Trump claimed was never contained in his intelligence briefings, even though officials said it was included a written briefing from February.
After multiple US troops were injured in Syria after what the Pentagon described as “deliberately provocative and aggressive behavior” by Russian forces, Trump did not respond. And in October, even after the EU and United Kingdom sanctioned six top Russian officials close to Putin for the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Trump did not.
In his book published after leaving the White House on poor terms with Trump, former national security adviser John Bolton wrote the President privately complained about sanctions and other punitive measures imposed on Russia.
Bolton listed a bevy of administration actions against Russia, saying Trump “touted these as major achievements, but almost all of them occasioned opposition, or at least extended grumbling and complaining, from Trump himself.”
Perpetually frustrated by what he called the “Russia hoax,” Trump has accused his opponents of trying to stymie good relations with Moscow as they sought to investigate links between his campaign and Russian election interference.
So annoyed has Trump become at mention of Russian misdeeds that, in the past, he has resisted intelligence warnings about Russia, leading members of his national security ream — including those who delivered the President’s Daily Brief — to brief him less often on Russia-related threats to the US, multiple former Trump administration officials have told CNN.
When his oral intelligence briefing included information related to Russia’s malign activities against the United States, Trump often questioned the intelligence itself.