GOP chairman worried by Trump's stance on Russian interference

GOP chairman worried by Trump's stance on Russian interference
© Greg Nash

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee says he is worried that President TrumpDonald John TrumpDems flip Wisconsin state Senate seat Sessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants GOP rep: 'Sheet metal and garbage' everywhere in Haiti MORE has not issued an “outright condemnation” of Russia for meddling in the 2016 election.

Rep. Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulBipartisan group to introduce DACA bill in House Despite amnesty, DACA bill favors American wage-earners Dems fear ‘Stephen Miller ambush’ on immigration MORE (R-Texas), who was widely viewed as a contender for Trump’s secretary of Homeland Security, told The Hill in a sit-down interview that he has told the administration the president needs to “more forcefully” stand up to Moscow. 

But, nearly one year into Trump’s administration, McCaul’s appeal has gone unanswered.

“I think there is a lot of, for whatever reason, avoidance of the issue, or saying that it could have been some other country. When you look at the intelligence, it is very clear the attribution goes directly to the Kremlin,” McCaul said. “That worries me.”

Trump has at times cast doubt on the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia sought to interfere in the election. He has also lashed out at the special counsel investigation into whether his campaign coordinated with Moscow, calling it a “witch hunt.” 

The Washington Post reported Thursday that officials briefing Trump refrain from bringing up Russia-related intelligence in verbal briefings to avoid angering him.

Meanwhile, Trump has sought warmer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin to handle problems like the Syrian civil war and North Korea’s nuclear program. Trump signaled briefly last month that he believed the Russian president when he told him Moscow did not meddle in the election.

The developments have baffled some in the GOP who want to see Trump take a harder line, particularly when it comes to election interference.

“Russia is not going to stop their bad behavior unless there are consequences to it,” McCaul said. “I haven’t seen any consequences, and I fully anticipate in 2018 and certainly the next presidential election that they’ll be trying to do the same thing. And I think we need to be prepared for that.” 

McCaul, who has not been afraid to criticize the president, was among the small group of lawmakers initially briefed on Russian activity last October, as Moscow’s actions were coming into focus. The same month, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a joint statement blaming the Russian government for the hack of the Democratic National Committee. 

It was not until later that U.S. intelligence officials fully pieced together what Russia had done, describing it as a multifaceted hacking and disinformation campaign in a Jan. 6 public assessment. Moscow’s goal, according to U.S. officials, was to sow discord, damage Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIntel Dem decries White House 'gag order' after Bannon testimony 'Total free-for-all' as Bannon clashes with Intel members Mellman: On Political Authenticity (Part 2) MORE and aid Trump.

“I was very alarmed by it, the idea that a foreign adversary could be trying to influence our elections, and that was in fact the case,” McCaul said.

McCaul’s committee has jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security’s broad portfolio of responsibilities, including border security and counterterrorism. But McCaul, who is entering the final year of his term-limited chairmanship, has also made cybersecurity a chief focus, pushing legislation to give Homeland Security the authority and resources to protect critical infrastructure from cyber and physical threats.

“This threat is ever evolving and getting worse by the day, not better,” he said. 

Last week, the House passed legislation sponsored by McCaul that would elevate Homeland Security’s cybersecurity mission by replacing the little-recognized headquarters office called the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) with an operational, stand-alone agency to handle cyber and infrastructure protection.

Part of the NPPD’s mission is providing penetration testing and other services to state and local officials worried about the security of their voter databases and other systems. Homeland Security opened up election infrastructure to voluntary federal protections after Russia tried to infiltrate election infrastructure in 21 states ahead of last year’s election.

Broadly, NPPD is responsible for protecting critical infrastructure — the majority of which is owned privately — from cyber and physical threats.

McCaul’s legislation has received strong backing from Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor Overnight Cybersecurity: Bipartisan bill aims to deter election interference | Russian hackers target Senate | House Intel panel subpoenas Bannon | DHS giving 'active defense' cyber tools to private sector Hoyer blasts Trump for 'racist rhetoric' MORE, Trump’s new Homeland Security secretary. She has urged the Senate to pass similar legislation. 

Nevertheless, the bill could face more of a challenge in the upper chamber, where companion legislation has not yet been introduced. An aide to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said the panel “is reviewing legislation as it relates to NPPD.” 

The Senate confirmed Nielsen, a Bush-era Homeland Security official with a background in cyber, in early December, four months after John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE left the helm of the department to serve as Trump’s chief of staff.

McCaul sees Nielsen’s grasp of cybersecurity issues as one of her key strengths. 

“I think what I admire about Kirstjen is that she has this deep background in cybersecurity. It’s good that you have a secretary that actually understands that, because I think some secretaries may not make that a focus,” he said. 

McCaul also led delegations France and Eastern Europe in May to meet with officials there on cybersecurity and defense issues, including a trip to Tallinn, Estonia, the heart of NATO’s cyber operations.

While there, McCaul said he observed “complete disinformation campaign warfare” from Russia he likened to the campaign that was waged in the United States.

Facebook, for example, discovered $100,000 worth of Russia-connected political advertisements that were purchased ahead of the 2016 vote that were largely geared toward exploiting societal divisions in the U.S.

“The question is how prepared are we to stop that disinformation campaign,” McCaul said, looking forward to the 2018 midterm elections. “I think it had an influence on our election last time.”

“Some of it may just be educating the American people that this is propaganda coming out of Russia,” he said.

--This report was updated at 1:44 p.m.