November 29, 2020

Trump Claims Credit for 2018 Cyberattack on Russia

President Trump took credit late last week for a cyberattack on Russia’s Internet Research Agency two years ago, citing it as evidence that he has responded strongly to Russian provocations, despite considerable evidence that he has often excused Moscow’s aggressions in cyberspace and on European territory.

Mr. Trump’s statement came in an interview with Marc A. Thiessen, a conservative columnist for The Washington Post who is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

In the Oval Office interview, Mr. Thiessen asked whether Mr. Trump had launched the attack that shut down the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm in St. Petersburg, Russia, that was behind much of the 2016 election influence campaign that ran on Facebook and other social media sites.

“Correct,’’ Mr. Trump said, but he added no other details.

The move against the Internet Research Agency, though classified, has been widely reported over the past two years.

While not especially sophisticated — United States Cyber Command knocked the group offline for a few days around the 2018 midterm elections — it is often cited as a prime example of American cyberwarfare making use of new leeway to take limited offensive actions under a presidential order that Mr. Trump signed in August of that year.

Before Mr. Trump’s assertion in the interview, there had not been any evidence that he was aware of the operation in advance or had specifically ordered it.

In fact, Mr. Trump has often questioned the evidence that Russia was involved at all in trying to influence the 2016 election, and regularly calls the investigations into possible Russian connections with his campaign part of the “Russia Hoax.”

But in recent days, he has come under new pressure to demonstrate his distance from Russia and President Vladimir V. Putin.

The revelation that in February he had been warned that Russia was likely offering bounties to Afghan militants for killing American troops, but did nothing in response, has created a firestorm of criticism that he was protecting Mr. Putin, not American troops.

Mr. Trump also has invited Mr. Putin to join a Group of 7 summit in Washington in September, dropping past American insistence that Russia must first reverse its annexation of Crimea and its continuing, low-level war in eastern Ukraine.

The president appears to be giving no ground on the bounty story; on Saturday morning, he tweeted anew that the story was a “phony hit job by the @nytimes. They had no source, they made it up. FAKE NEWS!”

So far the White House has declined to declassify the section of a Presidential Daily Brief from February that described the evidence, or to make public a recently-commissioned national intelligence estimate about the evidence.

Mr. Trump has never before taken credit for ordering a cyberattack, even one meant more as a public signal than a long-lasting, destructive strike. Just a few days ago, the United States was warning that Russians were engaged in ransomware attacks, suggesting that the 2018 attack may have been briefly effective, but did not establish a long-term deterrent.

The president was not asked about other, more significant actions that American cyberforces have taken in Russia, including planting malware in its power grid to remind the Russians that if they turned off the lights in American cities, America was ready to retaliate in kind. (When The New York Times revealed that operation, Mr. Trump called it a “virtual act of treason,” but went on to allege that the story was not true.)

Many of Mr. Trump’s aides, most recently his former national security adviser, John R. Bolton, have said they could not discuss Russia’s election-related actions with the president because he believed the very conversation called into question the legitimacy of his election. But in the new interview, he seemed to acknowledge that the Russians acted — and blamed President Barack Obama for underreacting.

He said that Mr. 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 would win “because he read phony polls.”

It is generally agreed that Mr. Obama did underreact to the early revelations in 2016 about Russian cyberinterference.

Mr. Obama delivered a warning to Mr. Putin when the two men met in September, two months before the presidential election. But the sanctions and diplomatic expulsions that Mr. Obama ordered did not come until after the election was over, and Mr. Obama was days from leaving office.