Nov 18, 2020 - Technology

How Trump chose disinformation over his own cyber chief

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump, in announcing the latest in a line of post-election firings, embraced unsubstantiated claims of election hacking over one of his own top cybersecurity officials.

Why it matters: This is only the latest example of an ongoing attempt to purge officials deemed insufficiently loyal to the president. But the potential decapitation of cyber leadership at the Department of Homeland Security could also create expertise gaps during the presidential transition period, making the country less secure.

Driving the news: Trump announced on Twitter Tuesday night that Christopher Krebs, who ran department's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), had been fired.

  • CISA helps protect critical infrastructure, and Krebs has led high-profile messaging campaigns aimed at increasing public confidence in the security of the U.S. presidential election.

Between the lines: Trump was quite clear in his tweet that the termination was due to Krebs' recent assertion that the 2020 election was the most secure in the history of the country.

  • Trump said that claim was "highly inaccurate" and that the election was in fact chock-full of "massive improprieties and fraud — including dead people voting, Poll Watchers not allowed into polling locations, 'glitches' in the voting machines which changed votes from Trump to Biden, late voting, and many more."

Reality check: There's no evidence for any of those claims, which range from misleading statements, such as observers being denied access, to completely unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, such as the claim about voting machines.

  • Trump's own tweets on the matter quickly received labels from Twitter noting that the claims have been disputed. The labels direct users to more information about the rarity of voter fraud in the U.S.
  • The president’s legal challenges to election results have also failed to deliver evidence of widespread fraud and have been repeatedly turned back in court.

The big picture: Krebs is widely respected by politicians from both parties as well as outside cybersecurity circles, and news of his potential firing, expected since at least last week, was met with loud public resistance. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf also refused President Trump's orders to fire Krebs, according to the New York Post.

What they're saying: "Honored to serve. We did it right," Krebs tweeted after the news broke.

  • Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, and Jim Langevin, co-founder of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus, both slammed the move in statements. Schiff called it "pathetic," while Langevin said it "opens the door for our adversaries to target us in cyberspace."
  • GOP Sen. Ben Sasse said in a statement, "Chris Krebs did a really good job — as state election officials all across the nation will tell you — and he obviously should not be fired."
  • Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and is reportedly in the running to be President-elect Biden's director of national security, said, "We should be empowering Chris and his team to do more, not punishing them for their doing their job."

The Krebs firing comes on the heels of two other DHS officials — Bryan Ware, CISA's assistant director, and Valerie Boyd, the department's assistant secretary for international affairs — being forced to resign for their perceived disloyalty to Trump.

  • Those firings were carried out by John McEntee, the White House aide who has also spearheaded the recent Pentagon purge.

The bottom line: Trump's "firing of a top notch cybersecurity leader in [Krebs] is not leadership," tweeted Jamil Jaffer, a former senior House intel staffer who served under former Republican Intel Chair Mike Rogers. "It is an embarrassment and an act of cowardice. I say this as a committed conservative who has served under four elected Republicans, including in the Bush White House. Enough."

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