By Marc Thiessen
Editor’s note: This is the second of two columns by Marc A. Thiessen based on his recent interview with Pres. Donald Trump. Part One appeared last week.
During a recent Oval Office interview with me, Pres. Donald Trump acknowledged for the first time that, in 2018, he authorized a covert cyberattack against Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg-based troll farm that spearheaded Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and was doing the same in the 2018 midterm elections.
Asked whether he had launched the attack, Trump replied, “Correct.”
Trump said that, in 2016, Pres. Barack Obama “knew before the election that Russia was playing around. Or, he was told. Whether or not it was so or not, who knows? And he said nothing. And the reason he said nothing was that he didn’t want to touch it because he thought [Hillary Clinton] was winning because he read phony polls. So, he thought she was going to win. And we had the silent majority that said, ‘No, we like Trump.’”
Acted on Intelligence
Unlike Obama, Trump said, he acted on the intelligence he was given about Russia’s election interference by striking its cyber capabilities.
“Look, we stopped it,” the president said.
The cyberattack previously was reported in The Washington Post, but Trump never officially had confirmed it until now. Senior U.S. officials also confirmed for me that the strike occurred and was effective, taking the Internet Research Agency offline.
Trump had elevated U.S. Cyber Command to the status of a unified command in 2017 and gave it new authorities to conduct offensive cyber operations in 2018. The cyberattack appears to have been the first that was designed to frustrate Moscow’s attempts to interfere with a U.S. election.
Russian interference in the 2018 midterm elections was serious and pervasive. In February 2018, then-Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that “the United States is under attack,” and that Russia had been emboldened in 2018 by the success of its previous influence operations, for which the United States had imposed no price. During the hearing, Democrats accused the Trump administration of failing to prepare to protect the 2018 vote.
Had a Plan
Well, it turns out Trump did have a plan. In March 2018, during a White House news conference, Trump was asked about possible Russian election interference. “We won’t allow that to happen,” Trump said. “We’ll counteract whatever they do. We’ll counteract it very strongly.” And unlike his predecessor in 2016, he did so, using America’s offensive cyber capabilities in an unprecedented way against Russia’s interference operations.
During our interview, Trump said the cyberattack was part of a broader policy of confronting Russia throughout the world. “Nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have,” he said. The president offered a litany of actions he has taken to counteract Russia. “I could give you 30 different things,” he said. “I sent [Ukraine] a massive number of antitank busters. I sent them military equipment and Obama sent them nothing. That’s against Russia,” he said. “I made us the No. 1 oil-producing country in the world. It wasn’t even close. I made us No.1 — that’s bad for Russia.”
The president also cited his pressure on Germany to cancel the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline from Russia and avoid becoming even more dependent on Moscow than it already is. “Germany is paying billions of dollars, billions to Russia,” Trump says. “And we’re supposed to protect Germany from Russia. How does that work?”
But his “biggest” move of all to counter Russia, Trump said, has been his restoration of America’s military: “I rebuilt our military. We now have the newest military we’ve ever had. … That’s not good for Russia either. You understand?”
Beefing up NATO
Talking about his efforts to counter Russia, the president also pointed to his success in persuading NATO members to increase their contributions to the transatlantic alliance. “I raised $140 billion from NATO countries going up to $400 billion [over three years], and what’s the purpose of NATO? Russia.” The president told me that, despite earlier threats, he doesn’t really want to exit NATO, “but I want them to pay their fair share.”
Trump said that even though “every week, we put more sanctions on Russia,” he and Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin “actually have a very good relationship.” The two leaders are “trying to work out a nuclear arms treaty that’s going to be a significant one. … There is no more important thing that we can do than nuclear arms control.”
In sum, Trump said, “I love the country, and so, despite all of the things I have to do, I just feel I have to do it right.”
Here is something he did right. While Trump is accused of not taking Russian interference seriously, he did more than Barack Obama ever did to combat it.
Marc Thiessen writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post on foreign and domestic policy. He is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the former chief speechwriter for Pres. George W. Bush.
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