Did Kirstjen Nielsen really need to be told that the subject of Russia might be a wee bit sensitive to the man whom Democrats accused of being a Muscovite agent? According to “one senior administration official” talking to the New York Times, chief of staff Mick Mulvaney had to intervene to keep the ousted Homeland Security Secretary from bringing up 2020 election security issues connected to Russian intrusions during Cabinet meetings. Nielsen eventually gave up discussing it with Trump at all:
In the months before Kirstjen Nielsen was forced to resign, she tried to focus the White House on one of her highest priorities as homeland security secretary: preparing for new and different Russian forms of interference in the 2020 election. …
But in a meeting this year, Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, made it clear that Mr. Trump still equated any public discussion of malign Russian election activity with questions about the legitimacy of his victory. According to one senior administration official, Mr. Mulvaney said it “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level.” …
This account of Ms. Nielsen’s frustrations was described to The New York Times by three senior Trump administration officials and one former senior administration official, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity. The White House did not provide comment after multiple requests on Tuesday.
Mulvaney offered a rebuttal to this account — although an oddly qualified rebuttal:
Mulvaney said in a statement in response to The Times’ report, “I don’t recall anything along those lines happening in a meeting.”
He added that the administration “will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections, and we’ve already taken many steps to prevent it in the future.”
So it didn’t happen in a meeting. It’s probably not much of a stretch to imagine that it could have happened in some other context, though. To this day, Trump seems incapable of distinguishing between the reality of Russian attempts to interfere in 2016 and his own innocence of participation in them. Trump often minimizes Russia’s actions — as Jared Kushner did yesterday as well — out of personal affront to the fact that Trump won the election on his own steam. The last thing Trump would want to sit through is another lecture on Russia’s hostile propaganda and intelligence efforts aimed at the next election cycle.
Even if that were the case, though, this analysis from the NYT is a stretch at best:
Even though the Department of Homeland Security has primary responsibility for civilian cyberdefense, Ms. Nielsen eventually gave up on her effort to organize a White House meeting of cabinet secretaries to coordinate a strategy to protect next year’s elections.
As a result, the issue did not gain the urgency or widespread attention that a president can command. And it meant that many Americans remain unaware of the latest versions of Russian interference.
Worth noting: It didn’t gain much urgency or widespread attention in the last administration either. If it had, perhaps we wouldn’t still be discussing Russia’s routine attempts to create mischief in Western elections, a track record which stretches back well into the Soviet era.
More to the point, however, Trump’s unhappiness with this topic didn’t prevent Nielsen from organizing an effective response to it. If she couldn’t raise the topic in a formal Cabinet meeting, Nielsen certainly could have connected with other Cabinet officials on her own to coordinate those efforts and plan effective countermeasures. It’s beyond silly to pretend that a Cabinet meeting is the only venue in which such matters can be discussed.
Furthermore, Homeland Security would primarily be dealing with voting infrastructure rather than counterintelligence. Counterintelligence would be in the purview of the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — William Barr and Dan Coats, respectively. Dealing with Russian intel ops would fall to them first, with Nielsen in the loop to keep abreast of the threats. Nielsen’s primary task would be to focus on coordinating with states on hardening their voting systems to prevent intrusions and outside manipulation.
This leak seems gauged to cover Nielsen’s exit and offer a preemptive shield for any potential blame for failures. Needless to say, that’s not exactly a confidence-booster ahead of 2020’s elections. If those efforts were on track, why would anyone need to float this biscuit out now?