the national interest

Russian Election Hacking in 2020 Could Easily Be Much Worse Than 2016

Photo: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

What if Trump fails to win the Electoral College in 2020? Would he refuse to accept the results of an election? The first thing to remember is that he already has.

Back when Hillary Clinton was viewed as 2016’s likely victor, one widely expressed fear was that Donald Trump would not abide by the outcome, threatening the tradition of peaceful transfer of power that has survived more than two centuries. What happened instead was something nobody anticipated: Trump won — and still refused to accept the election results. He has never stopped insisting that the national vote, which his opponent carried by nearly 3 million ballots, was stolen. He has periodically charged that millions of undocumented immigrants cast votes for Clinton and that this fraud was carried out, for some reason, in California, rather than in states where it might have had some bearing on the outcome. In a recent address to the Turning Point USA Teen Summit, Trump went further.

“Don’t kid yourself, those numbers in California and numerous other states, they’re rigged,” he said to applause. “You got people voting that shouldn’t be voting. They vote many times, not just twice, not just three times. They vote — it’s like a circle. They come back; they put a new hat on. They come back; they put a new shirt. And in many cases, they don’t even do that. You know what’s going on. It’s a rigged deal.”

In 2020, a crude lunge into dictatorship would still be shocking, even given the president’s violation of political norms. But there remains a different, chillingly realistic avenue for a constitutional crisis the next time around. Just look at the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian threats to the election apparatus and, even more crucially, at the Republican Party’s response.

Of all the institutions and norms of American government, none is more rickety than the voting process. The system’s legitimacy hangs on the public’s willingness to trust the accuracy of a system that is hardly a system at all. There’s the hodgepodge design: The kind of machine used to count votes differs not only among states but within them. Then there are the hurdles politicians (mostly, though not all, Republicans) create in order to make voting intentionally difficult. The existence of the Electoral College compounds the problem by increasing the probability that a small number of ballots will determine the outcome. (A “close” national election is one decided by several hundred thousand votes, still orders of magnitude larger than the several hundred votes that swung Florida in 2000.)

The Senate report notes that while Russians did not breach voting machines in 2016, they scoped out the defenses in all 50 states. One expert told the committee that Russia was “conducting the reconnaissance to do the network mapping, to do the topology mapping, so that you could actually understand the network, establish a presence, so you could come back later and actually execute an operation.” The scariest aspect of the report is not necessarily the facts it reveals. There aren’t many of them: Disconcertingly large blocks of text are redacted, apparently to keep the liabilities they reveal from those who would exploit them. The effect of these thick black bars, interspersed with such terms as malicious, unexplained, and attacks, is like watching an aide burst into a briefing room and whisper something into the ear of the boss, whose eyes bulge as he listens.

Even more alarming than the implied weaknesses in the voting system is the political context in which they exist. President Trump has frequently either minimized or outright denied Russia’s culpability in the 2016 email hacks (which Trump himself was exploiting at the time). The benign explanation is that the president is merely hypersensitive about the legitimacy of his election. But this fails to explain why Trump also refuses to accept intelligence about Russia’s plans to interfere in the next one.

Earlier this spring, the New York Times reported that Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, warned Homeland Security Director Kirstjen Nielsen not to bring up Russian plans to interfere with the 2020 election in front of the president. The story also noted that the administration eliminated the cybersecurity-coordinator position. This harrowing article contained one note of official reassurance: a quote from the well-regarded director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, who insisted, “Election security is and will continue to be one of our nation’s highest national-security priorities.”

Now Coats, like Nielsen, has left the administration. A key source of friction between Coats and his boss was Russia in general and its election operations in particular. The White House weakened the language in an official statement about Russian meddling in the midterm elections. On August 1, when a reporter asked whether Trump had discussed Robert Mueller’s warning about election interference on a recent phone call with Vladimir Putin, the president laughed off the question. (“You don’t really believe this. Do you believe this?”) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has dismissed an election-security bill passed in the House as “a highly partisan bill from the same folks who spent two years hyping up a conspiracy theory about President Trump and Russia and who continue to ignore this administration’s progress at correcting the Obama administration’s failure on this subject.” Note how tightly McConnell echoes Trump’s own delirious messaging. He equates election security with Trump’s own culpability with Russia; proceeds to dismiss this as a “conspiracy theory,” despite massive evidence to the contrary; and turns around and blames the Obama administration for the operation Trump encouraged.

If McConnell merely objected to discrete elements of the Democratic bill, he would name them rather than reject the entire idea as a sore-loser Democrat excuse for Obama’s failure. A significant number of Republicans in Washington agree with Coats and the intelligence community about the danger of Russian election interference. There are several bipartisan election-security bills in the Senate, and McConnell is blocking every single one of them. “Even bipartisan coalitions have begun to crumble in the face of the majority leader’s blockade,” the Times reported in June.

McConnell prefers to fade into the background. But his measures to snuff out even the tiniest outbreaks of patriotism and conscience within the Republican caucus reveal the true depth of his commitment. He is the bloodless functionary as active accomplice to a foreign and domestic assault on the republic.

The vulnerabilities of the U.S. voting system certainly furnish Putin with an inviting target. The response, or nonresponse, to the Russian threat by both the administration and the Senate gives us two important pieces of information about a prospective Russian attack. The first is that a hack is more likely to succeed this time around. The insistent passivity of both the administration and the Senate has undermined responses at both the executive and legislative levels.

Government agencies issue warnings all the time about disasters that don’t end up happening. What seems clear is that Russia has incentive to act and that such an operation stands at least some chance of succeeding, given that it can go after voting machines almost anywhere and needs to succeed with only a handful of them in order to change the outcome. Every swing state has one or more large cities with a massive concentration of Democratic votes. Tampering with or disabling the vote count in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee, for instance, could throw the election to Trump outright or create the conditions for a disputed result. Either outcome would dovetail with Moscow’s goals of discrediting the democratic process as a sham and keeping Trump in office. This is the dynamic that has preoccupied most coverage of and commentary about the issue.

Far more revealingly, Republican indifference to the Russian threat gives an indication of how the party would respond in the event of a compromised election. Their support for Trump previews how a disputed vote tally caused by Russian hacking would metastasize into a systemic constitutional crisis.

McConnell defended his obstruction of election-security measures by pointing to his long record of hawkishness on Russia. The problem is not McConnell’s loyalty to Russia but his loyalty to the Republican Party. If China or Saudi Arabia or North Korea were trying to help the head of the Republican ticket, McConnell wouldn’t get in its way, either.

He has already proved that he would prefer for his party to win with Russian help than to lose without it. In the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, then–CIA Director John Brennan privately warned congressional leaders that Putin was personally overseeing a sweeping election intervention on Trump’s behalf, which might include hacking emails as well as voting machines. McConnell greeted this dire warning icily. Not only would he refuse to sign a bipartisan statement warning Russia not to interfere with the election, as Joe Biden claimed in 2018, but he told Brennan that if the CIA director went public with his warning, McConnell would accuse Brennan of interfering in the election against Trump. McConnell even resisted signing a letter warning state election officials to beware of Russian hacking, eventually agreeing to a softer version that did not mention Russia by name.

And this episode took place at a time when the cost of offending Trump was low. Republican leaders widely expected that their nominee would lose and that within weeks they would be busily washing off his stink. If McConnell wouldn’t cooperate with a bipartisan stand against a hack then, it is impossible to imagine his doing so now that Trump has crushed all resistance within the party.

The president may be the most infamous proponent of voter-fraud fever dreams, but he is hardly alone in his delusions. It is a fantasy he has imbibed from years of consuming right-wing news, where systematic urban Democratic fraud is an article of faith. During Bill Clinton’s second term, I sat in on an off-the-record lunch with a high-ranking Republican congressional leader. One colleague asked a question predicated on the public’s having reelected Clinton by a comfortable margin. The Republican replied that he didn’t accept the premise: He believed massive fraud had padded the Democratic totals and so could not be confident Clinton had won legitimately. (Clinton won in 1996 by more than 8.5 percent, a margin of more than 8 million votes.)

Moreover, it was George W. Bush’s administration, not Trump’s, that ordered U.S. Attorneys to find and prosecute voter fraud and then fired several after they failed to locate any. It was mainstream Republican congressional leaders who whipped up such a fervor against acorn — a progressive grassroots organization they accused of registering fraudulent voters — that the group had to disband. And it has been ordinary Republican governors and legislators who have imposed a variety of voter-suppression laws over the past decade.

Conveniently for Putin, this deep vein of Republican paranoia has been focused on the softest target: the voting system. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report concludes that while vote-tabulating machinery would be difficult (though not necessarily impossible) to hack into remotely, the easiest way for Russia to undermine the election would be to tamper with the voting rolls so eligible voters disappear or, at a minimum, key precincts are bogged down in chaos.

And so imagining a Trumpian succession crisis does not require us to summon visions of tank columns rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue. It would simply be a souped-up version of the 2000 recount. During that crisis, the Florida state government, run by the Republican candidate’s brother, repeatedly blocked the manual recounts that Democrats were permitted to ask for. At one point, when officials in Miami started recounting ballots, Republican staffers stormed their office and shut them down. No Republicans or conservatives condemned the use of mob tactics to stop a sanctioned government process. Eventually, Republicans succeeded in delaying it, with a major assist from the Supreme Court, and preventing the statewide recount.

The Republican Party that won the recount through sheer ruthlessness is fondly remembered today for its respect for liberal norms, which is sort of true, in the limited sense that the party has grown far more illiberal since. The 2020 version of the Republican Party is more extreme in both its ideology and its methods, and it will have a key advantage it lacked in 2000: a sitting president.

Suppose the election produces a Florida-style deadlock and the decisive electoral votes belong to Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin, or (just because history has a sense of humor) Florida. Key cities report irregularities in their vote totals, seemingly caused by as-yet-undetermined problems with their voter-registration lists or ballot counts. Some intelligence officials suspect Russian hackers, but federal-government agencies, now controlled by Trump loyalists, refuse to confirm any such finding, and Trump dismisses such accusations as more “deep state” sabotage. Fox News is aflame with reports of fraudulent Democratic votes cast by the millions.

Trump insists he is the legitimate victor. No do-overs! CNN is consumed with inscrutable arguments about alleged irregularities. Angry demonstrators scream at each other on the street. And while chaos erupts everywhere, the man in the Oval Office follows a well-known principle of real-estate disputes: Possession is nine-tenths of the law.

*This article appears in the August 5, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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