Legacy media outlets have been largely silent on the cyber attack President Trump ordered on Russia during the 2018 midterms, and when they do mention the directive, they go out of their way to avoid linking it to Trump.
The Washington Post and The New York Times were the first on the story in February, reporting that U.S. Cyber Command had used new authorities granted by President Trump and Congress in 2018 to attack an infamous Russian troll farm during the midterm elections. Cyber Command successfully took the group offline while Americans were at the polls, and for a day or so following the elections, in order to hinder its ability to sow disinformation or cast doubt on the results.
TheNYT and WaPo reported Trump approved the operation, but they appear reluctant to give him credit for the move, which flies in the face of an ongoing narrative that he is not doing enough to counter potential Russian interference ahead of the 2020 elections. Neither outlet reported that Trump apparently confirmed the scoop in a Fox News interview in May. (RELATED: Did Russian Facebook Ads Actually Have Any Effect On The Presidential Election?)
The only mentions the attack has gotten since February from TheNYT and WaPo are in reports dinging Trump for not taking a more aggressive public stance against Russian meddling. These reports bury mention of the attack and downplay Trump’s involvement by attributing the move to “the United States” or as “pursuant to a presidential directive.”
For example, TheNYT reported in late April that former Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was told not to bring up her plans to combat future Russian interference in front of Trump. “In Push for 2020 Election Security, Top Official Was Warned: Don’t Tell Trump,” the headline read.
Nielsen gave up on setting up a White House meeting to coordinate a strategy ahead of 2020, according to the report. “As a result, the issue did not gain the urgency or widespread attention that a president can command.”
The report criticizes Trump’s approach to the matter for 33 paragraphs before mentioning the 2018 attack, which is mentioned briefly before the story concludes with a quote from a DHS official expressing concerns about the Russia threat, and then a former CIA officer remarking on the success of Putin’s 2016 interference strategy. Trump’s role in the attack isn’t mentioned. (RELATED: This Mueller Grand Jury Witness Says Enough Is Enough)
The paragraphs on the attack in TheNYT read:
“Before the midterms, the United States Cyber Command created a so-called Russia Small Group of American officials to disrupt election influence campaigns by two groups whose members were indicted as part of Mr. Mueller’s investigation: the G.R.U., which is Moscow’s military intelligence agency, and the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm with ties to Putin.
The United States disrupted the Internet Research Agency’s servers around the midterm elections in November, according to officials briefed on the actions. A declassified after-action on the 2018 countermeasures by the United States government was expected to be released early this year but has never been published.”
A few days later, WaPo reported that Trump was undermining administration efforts to prepare for 2020 interference by downplaying the Russia threat. “The president’s rhetoric and lack of focus on election security has made it tougher for government officials to implement a more comprehensive approach to preserving the integrity of the electoral process,” the report said, citing unnamed current and former officials.
The cyber attack Trump approved is again buried at the very bottom of the report. “A group Nakasone set up with U.S. Cyber Command and NSA personnel last year to counter Russian influence is now permanent,” the fifth to last paragraph reads. “As part of that effort, Cyber Command, pursuant to a presidential directive, blocked Internet access to Russian trolls as Americans voted in November.”
The frame of the report is also undermined by other top security officials, including the director of national intelligence, who told WaPo they have gotten “full support” from Trump in their efforts to combat the Russian interference threat.
See more examples of reports that bury or ignore the attack here, here and here. WaPo has also published several opinion pieces in the same vein, including one in April accusing Trump of “doing nothing” about Russia.
Trump responded to criticism he is a puppet of Putin in the Fox News interview in which he appeared to confirm his role in personally authorizing the 2018 cyber attack. “Nobody’s been tougher to Russia than me,” he said.
On his role in the attack, he said: “I would rather not say that, but you can believe that the whole thing happened, and it happened during my administration.” He added that he’s been quiet on the issue because intelligence officials told him to avoid talking about it.
“[T]hey don’t like me to talk, intelligence says, ‘please don’t talk intelligence,” he said. “You know sometimes intelligence is good, and sometimes you look at [former FBI director James] Comey, and you look at [former CIA director John] Brennan and you look at [former Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper, and I’m supposed to believe that intelligence? I never believe that intelligence.”