Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, in Washington. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

 

Yesterday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen gave an unprecedented warning to a gathering of foreign diplomats in Washington, DC.:

“To those who would try to attack our democracy, to affect our elections, to affect the elections of other countries, to undermine national sovereignty, I have a word of warning: Don’t,” Ms. Nielsen told an estimated 80 foreign envoys and other officials during a speech last week, according to a person in attendance.

Two other people with knowledge of the event confirmed the comments. All three spoke on the condition of anonymity because the remarks were given at a closed-door meeting.

It was an unusually stern warning by Ms. Nielsen, and was among the harshest threats of retaliation by a member of President Trump’s cabinet. Ms. Nielsen is one of the most outspoken advocates of the administration’s policies, and has resisted being drawn into the controversy over Russian meddling during the 2016 election that put Mr. Trump in office.

Ms. Nielsen told the dignitaries gathered at Blair House, the presidential guesthouse, that election tampering would be detected and meddling states would suffer consequences, according to the person in attendance.

I’m not sure that tampering with electoral systems in a way that can change vote outcomes is a huge risk but the warning is needed. Between the Russian attempt to meddle in the 2016 elections and the Democrats and Trump opponents using that attempted meddling to try to delegitimize Trump’s election, we don’t need any more attacks on the public’s confidence in the process.

What the Trump administration is doing is 180-degrees out from the way the Obama administration stood by and watch what the Russians were doing but were too paralyzed with fear to do anything besides issue a “stand down” order to the people planning a retaliatory strike against Russia.

The Trump administration is in the process of getting security clearances for state elections officials so they can receive classified threat briefings and will have run vulnerability checks against all state systems before the mid-terms.

The other piece in this puzzle is John Bolton. Where Susan Rice was instrumental in the Obama “do nothing” strategy, Bolton is known to have a different philosophy:

Speaking last month at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security, Bolton laid out his proposed strategy to respond to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and to Russian aggression around the world. Bolton did not know that, only weeks later, he would be in a position to push his strategy as the top foreign-policy aide to the president.

The Trump administration has not done enough to respond to Russia’s attack on the United States and our democratic institutions, Bolton said, and Putin must pay a heavy price for his actions.

“I think that this is actually now the perfect time for President Trump to pivot to make it clear that he’s not going to permit additional [Russian] meddling, or meddling by any other foreign government in our election process,” Bolton said. “Whether [the Russians] were trying to collude with the Trump campaign or the Clinton campaign, their interference is unacceptable. It’s really an attack on the United States Constitution.”

The United States should respond in “cyberspace and elsewhere,” Bolton said, suggesting offensive action against the Russian operatives that perpetrated the interference. Only if the response is overwhelming will Russia and other countries be deterred.

“I don’t think the response should be proportionate, I think it should be very disproportionate,” he said.

With DHS and the National Security Adviser leaning forward and predisposed to retaliation and a president that is politically incapable of not retaliating, the price of meddling in the mid-terms for any foreign actor has suddenly become very high.