‘Trust, but verify’: Robert O’Brien says Russia promised not to mess with 2020 vote tallies

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White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said the Russian government has promised not to interfere with the 2020 election, four years after the United States determined Russia meddled in the 2016 contest, including in regards to voting and vote tallies.

O’Brien, who has led the National Security Council since September 2019, briefly discussed his Friday meeting in Geneva with his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council of Russia, during an appearance on CBS’s Face The Nation with host Margaret Brennan, who asked about President Trump being diagnosed with the coronavirus and flying to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Friday.

“Is there any intelligence to suggest that Russia and others are using the president’s diagnosis as any kind of campaign against the United States, and given the upcoming election, the interference we already know that they are conducting, how concerned are you?” Brennan asked.

“No, I think our adversaries know the United States is steady at the tiller and that we are protecting the American people. With respect to Russia and the elections, I went to meet with General Patrushev to let him know that there would be absolutely no tolerance for any interference with our Election Day, with our voting, with the vote tallies, and demanded that Russia not engage in that sort of thing,” O’Brien said. “The Russians have committed to doing so. And so, you know, look, it’s Russia, so as President Reagan said, and as President Trump often says, it’s, ‘Trust, but verify.’ So we’ll keep an eye on it, but the Russians did commit to not interfering in the elections, we’ll see what happens, but that was a message that the president thought it was important that I go deliver in person to General Patrushev, who as you know is President Putin’s right-hand person.”

O’Brien’s comments on Sunday echo those he made on Friday following his meeting with the Russians when he said they discussed “mutually agreed upon topics,” which included “elections noninterference.” He said, “I made it very clear that the United States will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections, and the Russian side committed not to do so.”

Bill Evanina, who leads the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, released an intelligence assessment in August warning that Russia is “using a range of measures to primarily denigrate” former Vice President Joe Biden, including that “pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption — including through publicizing leaked phone calls — to undermine” the 2020 Democratic nominee’s candidacy. The same statement said China “prefers” Trump not win reelection and is “expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020” in order to “pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests.” The counterintelligence official also said Iran “seeks to undermine” Trump’s presidency.

Last month, the Treasury Department announced sanctions against Derkach, noting that the Trump administration “is focused on exposing Russian malign influence campaigns and protecting our upcoming elections from foreign interference” and calling the action “a clear signal to Moscow and its proxies that this activity will not be tolerated.” Sanctions were also levied against three Russian nationals for supporting the Internet Research Agency, a Russian social media troll farm that the U.S. has blamed for election interference efforts in 2016 and 2018, and that is believed to be doing so again in 2020.

Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” but “did not establish” any criminal conspiracy between the Russians and the Trump campaign.

A senior Department of Homeland Security official told reporters in late August that the department deployed sensors on state networks in every state and that “we haven’t seen to date a ramp-up in activity targeting election infrastructure over the last few months.” He said that DHS had seen “nothing specific where we’ve seen lots of attempts specifically against any given system.”

In September, the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned “foreign actors and cyber criminals are spreading false and inconsistent information through various online platforms in an attempt to manipulate public opinion, discredit the electoral process, and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions” and that “these malicious actors could use these forums to also spread disinformation suggesting successful cyber operations have compromised election infrastructure and facilitated the ‘hacking’ and ‘leaking’ of U.S. voter registration data.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan July 2019 report concluded that “Russian government-affiliated cyber actors conducted an unprecedented level of activity against state election infrastructure in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. election,” including efforts to intrude into election systems in all 50 states. But the committee made it clear that it “found no evidence that vote tallies were altered or that voter registry files were deleted or modified” and no indication that “any votes were changed or that any voting machines were manipulated” as well as “no evidence of Russian actors attempting to manipulate vote tallies on Election Day.”

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