“Russia’s targeting of the 2016 U.S. presidential election was part of a broader, sophisticated, and ongoing information warfare campaign designed to sow discord in American politics and society.”
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence , August 2020, Chaired by Senator Marco Rubio (R – FL)
According to every institution of U.S. national security, cyberattacks and manipulations of social media are the superweapons of modern aggression. Russia, China, and Iran lead international efforts to distort news, penetrate our tech infrastructure, and covertly sow unrest on U.S. soil. By sabotaging democracy, they aim to advance their own interests. Voters in both parties recognize the growing problem (see Pew Research Center data in the chart). While the bipartisan Senate Select Committee found that Russia took Trump’s side in 2016, foreign agencies penetrate both parties and non-partisan civic institutions. American democracy loses every time.
How do Trump and Biden compare on protecting elections from cyberthreats?
Trump’s record is mixed at best.
- “I would like you to do us a favor though.” Solicited election interference from President Zelensky of Ukraine – Trump (September 25, 2018)
- “Trump then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, pleading with President Xi to ensure he’d win,” John Bolton in The Room Where it Happened, citing June 2010 meeting between Trump and Xi, with Trump inviting Chinese election interference.
- Formed the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to “coordinate the development of cybersecurity standards and guidance to safeguard the electoral process and the tools that deliver a secure system.” – White House statement. (November 2018)
- Proposed minimal increase in $12 billion budget for DHS and other cyber defense over previous year while increasing by $50 billion spending on conventional arms. (March 2019)
- Sanctioned 4 Russian agents for election interference and expelled 50 Russian diplomats, less than had been recommended in response by U.S. Intelligence. (Sep 10, 2020)
- Gave U.S. Cyber Command the okay to cyberstrike foreign adversaries as pre-emptive defense. (June 2018)
- Attacked major social media platforms for their attempts to purge foreign and domestic trolls (May 28, 2020)
Biden’s platform on this issue is prospective, as he is not coming off of nearly four years in the White House, but is more consistent and aggressive than Trump’s.
- “I am putting the Kremlin and other foreign governments on notice.” (July 20, 2020) – Biden
- Biden vowed “substantial and lasting costs on state perpetrators,” which he said could “include financial-sector sanctions, asset freezes, cyber responses, and the exposure of corruption” as well as a “range of other actions,” in response to U.S. Intelligence confirming interference by China, Russia, and Iran on July 14, 2020.
- Proposes to increase the role of Cybersecurity leadership in the White House. (August 2020)
- Proposes increasing the cyber defense budget relative to conventional weapons. (August 2020)
- Proposes increasing vigilance and penalties for foreign interference. (August 2020)
- Endorses pre-emptive cyberdefense strategy. (August 2020)
- Pressured tech companies to reform privacy and election trolling (October 18, 2019)
The Bottom Line
Partisan anger and contradictory messages from Trump about Russian meddling in 2016 clouded the key question of how the U.S. safeguards elections in the future. In 2016, 2017, and 2019 Trump is on record inviting Russian, Ukrainian and Chinese leaders to help him get re-elected, unsettling leaders on both sides of the aisle about his commitment to voter security. While Trump supported a heightened cybersecurity strategy, he also favored buying old-school military hardware over cybersecurity. More significantly, Trump’s ongoing feuds with top tech firms undermined essential public-private collaboration.
Biden’s plan is more coherent. He staked out cybersecurity as a top priority, and plans to restore a top cybersecurity White House position that was eliminated by Trump. Biden pressured tech companies to choke off foreign trolling where Trump exploited loopholes to sow rumors. Our next President will face hard budget cuts due to the economic impact of Covid-19, and will have to weigh cyberdefense over other needs. Trump’s record suggests he will keep doing what he perceives as what’s good for Trump – inviting foreign dictators to interfere with U.S. elections, and buying jets from defense contractors who dine at Mar-a-Lago. That means Americans’ voting privileges can be wiped out by hackers in Moscow, Tehran, or Beijing.
For voters who are deeply concerned about protecting the integrity and safety of American elections from foreign interference, Biden is clearly the better choice.