With the November presidential election just over 60 days away, recent actions and reports over the last week from all three of the government departments responsible for protecting the vote raise new concerns about the Trump administration’s commitment to a free and fair election.
Even as senior government officials continue to raise alarms about foreign actors seeking to attack the election, the major entities of federal government that share responsibility for election security—the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees and coordinates the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies—have taken steps that appear to undermine or compromise the nation’s ability to conduct a fair and free election in November and combat foreign interference.
Last week, in a surprise move, director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe announced that he was ending verbal, in-person congressional briefings on election security ahead of November. While the ODNI would continue to provide written reports to Congress, the move—which congressional leaders quickly condemned—would take away Congress’ ability to question intelligence analysts directly about election threats. “This is a shocking abdication of its lawful responsibility to keep the Congress currently informed, and a betrayal of the public’s right to know how foreign powers are trying to subvert our democracy,” House speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff said in a joint statement.
On Monday, an ABC News report highlighted concerns about attorney general William Barr’s decision to replace, weeks before the election, the career official who for the last decade has led the Justice Department’s national security Office of Law and Policy, effectively the department’s in-house legal counsel that ensures that counterintelligence and counterterrorism activities are legal and appropriately authorized. Brad Wiegmann is a 23-year veteran of the Justice Department, beloved and respected by colleagues, who had led that office for more than half the time the National Security Division has existed. His replacement, Kellen Dwyer, is a political appointee, a junior cybercrime prosecutor whose only previous time in the headlines stemmed from his November 2018 paperwork error that accidentally revealed secret federal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. When I asked a former senior Justice Department official whether Wiegmann’s replacement was actually a big deal, the response was swift and short: “Profoundly.”
And Wednesday, ABC News also reported that sometime in July, the Department of Homeland Security halted the release of an intelligence bulletin meant for federal, state, and local law enforcement partners, entitled “Russia Likely to Denigrate Health of US Candidates to Influence 2020 Election.” The bulletin was submitted for review on July 7. Less than an hour later, the department’s chief of staff, John Gountanis, emailed, “Please hold on sending this one out until you have a chance to speak to [acting secretary of homeland security Chad Wolf].” The bulletin, which mentioned Chinese and Iranian information operations as well, primarily focused on a Russian campaign to critique and raise questions about Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s health.
It is entirely possible that all three moves by DHS, DOJ, and ODNI are routine and justified. Maybe the DHS intel bulletin just wasn’t that good; the department’s intelligence apparatus has long been of questionable value, and weeks after the bulletin was shelved the leader of its Office of Intelligence & Analysis was removed following a controversy over compiling “intelligence reports” on journalists amid the Portland protests. Maybe Dwyer, who is liked by those familiar with his work, is there simply because Barr exercised his prerogative to have someone he likes better in that critical role. Maybe Ratcliffe is earnest when he says limiting in-person election security briefings is only intended to limit leaks from the notoriously leaky Congress.
Yet all three decisions stem from officials and department leaders who have given ample reason to doubt their good faith. And in democratic elections, there’s little difference between the appearance of legitimacy and legitimacy itself. Thus moves by DHS, DOJ, and ODNI are so worrisome specifically because they appear to compromise the integrity of the election.
Attorney general Barr has been one of the fiercest partisans and defenders of President Trump, famously skewing the conclusions of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in attacking the 2016 election and minimizing the most troubling aspects of Mueller’s findings. Throughout his 18-month tenure, Barr has taken actions that appear to compromise the integrity and independence of the department, including this summer forcing out the US attorney for the Southern District as that office zeroed in on criminal charges against Trump ally Steve Bannon. Most recently, in an interview Wednesday with CNN, Barr echoed Trump’s recent attacks on voting-by-mail, saying the technique, long employed safely and securely across the country for absentee balloting and the five states that already primarily vote by mail, was “playing with fire.”
For their parts, both Wolf and Ratcliffe are astoundingly unqualified for their current roles—literally their only qualifications for their current jobs appear to be a fierce political loyalty to Donald Trump himself.
Ratcliffe, formerly a member of Congress, possesses such scant national security credentials that he was forced previously to withdraw when Trump originally wanted to nominate him as DNI last summer. Earlier this year, though, a minority of the US senate confirmed him for a role that has previously usually been held by career military or intelligence officers—generals, admirals, or former directors of intelligence agencies themselves.
Wolf, a one-time Capitol Hill staffer who is not a lawyer and has never served in law enforcement, the military, or the intelligence world, spent the decade preceding the Trump administration as a lobbyist at a little-known and now defunct DC lobbying firm, specializing in winning contracts for the Transportation Security Administration. He stepped into a role that, from its creation after 9/11 until the Trump administration, had been exclusively held by former prosecutors or governors, most of whom had been federal judges, US attorneys, or state attorneys general.
Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office—Congress’s nonpartisan watchdog—ruled this summer that both Chad Wolf and his deputy, Ken Cuccinelli, are serving illegally in their roles, installed incorrectly over more senior Senate-confirmed department leaders. Wolf, in his nearly 10 months as the acting secretary of Homeland Security, has repeatedly boosted the Trump administration’s aggressive steps to combat Black Lives Matters protests, skirted federal restrictions on domestic law enforcement operations to deploy federal agents, and been the most vocal champion of the president’s “law and order” reelection strategy.
Each of the three government officials—Barr, Ratcliffe, and Wolf—has taken concrete actions that at least has the outward appearance and possibility of hamstringing, blocking, or de-emphasizing efforts to secure what will clearly be a fraught and high-tension election. Each move would be concerning on its own, but the combination is uniquely troubling and should raise fresh questions with Capitol Hill, state and local election officials, and voters about how seriously the Trump administration is committed to combating election interference. Combined with the ongoing disruptions at the Postal Service, the administration has much to answer for.
No less than the president himself appears to be encouraging fraud: In North Carolina on Wednesday, Donald Trump—who has spent months baselessly encouraging his supporters to question the validity of voting-by-mail amid the unprecedented challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic—himself told supporters to try to vote twice. In a Twitter thread this morning he backtracked only slightly, claiming that voting again in-person was a sort of insurance against your mail-in vote being lost or destroyed.
Barr didn’t bother giving any justification when asked on CNN about Trump’s comments Thursday. Instead he exhibited precisely the type of bad faith that makes his personnel reassignments worrisome: He played dumb, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he didn’t know whether North Carolina prohibited people from voting twice: “I don’t know what the law in the particular state says,” the attorney general responded.
Voting twice in any state—and every state—is illegal. It is also, notably, a federal crime, which seems like the type of thing someone like Barr, who is serving as attorney general for the second time, would know.
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