In an interview on Sunday, August 9, White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien stated that China may use cyberattacks during the 2020 election to “intervene with our democracy.” O’Brien, appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” claimed that China had an interest in ensuring President Donald Trump lost the election because “he’s been harder on China than any president in historical past.”
O’Brien’s statement aligns with warnings from experts who say that China’s disinformation campaigns have been growing more sophisticated. Yet, considering that Trump and his closest allies have regularly downplayed Russia’s cyber election tampering, it is a noticeable change of tone from the Trump administration.
China’s cyberattacks on the US election
The cybersecurity of the United States’ elections has been a concern since the 2016 election. Multiple US intelligence agencies have alleged that Russia sought to interfere in that election in order to help Trump beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and they have warned the country will do so again this year.
Speaking with Margaret Brennan on “Face the Nation,” O’Brien acknowledged there were multiple foreign “malign actors” that could seek to interfere in the 2020 election. “We know that there are people overseas, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Russians, others who would like to interfere with our democracy,” he stated.
Twice, O’Brien emphasized the possible cyberattacks were “not just Russia,” stating “the Chinese don’t want the president re-elected.” He elaborated:
“We’re standing up for the first time to the Chinese Communist Party and protecting Americans, protecting our IP, protecting our economy, protecting our vaccine data. And so there are a lot of people around the world that aren’t happy with America because they don’t share our values … And we’re going to take every action necessary to keep folks out, whether it’s China or Russia or Iran or Cuba or Venezuela or others.”
Asked to clarify on China’s alleged motive for interfering in the election, O’Brien stated, “They’d like the president to lose. And China, like Russia, like Iran, have engaged in cyberattacks and phishing and that sort of thing with respect to our election infrastructure, with respect to websites and that sort of thing.”
China’s disinformation campaign
In July, Mark Grabowski, the associate professor of communications at Adelphi University, spoke with TMS about China’s growing disinformation campaign. He warned that much of the media had been ignoring it, focusing instead on Russia’s well-documented efforts.
“There’s a myth among many American journalists and academics that China’s disinformation campaigns are primitive and less sophisticated than Russia’s,” Grabowski said. “That’s a very naïve and dangerous underestimation of China’s capabilities.”
The US and China political relationship has been fraught since Trump took office, giving credence to the idea that China’s leaders want to oust Trump. In the last few weeks alone, China has threatened retaliation multiple times, once because the US closed the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas and again in response to the US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar visiting Taiwan.
Will Trump stand up to President Putin?
O’Brien’s combative statement about resisting Chinese cyberattacks offers a contrast to Trump’s previous statements on Russia’s interference in US elections. Since the 2016 campaign, Trump has repeatedly downplayed the actions of Russian hackers as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s role in the attacks.
During a debate with Clinton in September 2016, Trump challenged the conclusion of US intelligence that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee. “It could be Russia,” he said, “but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
Since becoming president, Trump’s continued deference to Putin has alarmed many. During a 2018 joint interview with Putin in which the two discussed 2016 election interference, Trump said he believed the Russian president over his own intelligence agencies. It is widely accepted by members of US intelligence that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and will interfere in this year’s election as well.
In April of this year, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously approved an official report on the matter, confirming that Putin ordered the “multifaceted” campaign “to influence [the] US election.” Among the members of the committee were Republican Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, both reliable allies of Trump.
National security advisers
In the “Face the Nation” interview, O’Brien surprised some listeners when he stated that he doesn’t listen to conversations the president has with other foreign leaders.
“You know, what I don’t get involved in, you know, unlike perhaps some of my predecessors or others who leaked documents, I don’t get into the conversations that the president has with foreign heads of state, whether it’s Russia or France or the UK for that matter. Those are private conversations.”
This concerned many since, traditionally, calls with foreign leaders, while not recorded, are done in the presence of the national security adviser and with other officials listening in. Trump’s calls with foreign leaders have alarmed US officials on occasion. Most notably, a questionable call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy led to Trump’s impeachment.
After O’Brien’s interview, Pete Souza, who was the official White House photographer for President Barack Obama, posted a photo on his Instagram of Obama on the phone with Putin. In the foreground, then-national security adviser Susan Rice can be seen listening and taking notes. Of O’Brien’s “Face the Nation” admission, Souza stated, “This is truly a remarkable statement.”
O’Brien became Trump’s fourth national security adviser in September 2019, following John Bolton, who left the position that month. Earlier this year, Bolton published “The Room Where It Happened,” a tell-all memoir from his time in the White House. Among its shocking but unverified claims is that Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win reelection.
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