The developments in the evolving story of Russia’s meddling in our presidential election are happening at such a frenetic pace that it’s easy to barely soak in one revelation before it’s overcome by another one.
So let’s just slow this down for a moment and take a look at something that should concern every Florida voter, no matter whom you supported in the last election.
Mixed among the recent stories of congressional testimony, President Donald Trump’s combative tweets, and the latest leaks from the nation’s intelligence agencies was a story about the attempted hacking of VR Systems, a Tallahassee-based private vendor that sells voter registration software to 64 of Florida’s 67 counties as well as voting jurisdictions in other states.
This is the software that is used to check in voters when they show up at their precincts to vote on Election Day.
A report leaked from the U.S. National Security Agency concluded that hackers working for the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence unit, gained online access to the Florida company, then used that information to send malicious emails to 122 election officials around the country with attachments designed to infect their voter data.
This effort, which spanned 39 states, reached at least five Florida counties — Volusia, Hillsborough, Pasco, Citrus and Clay — according to The Miami Herald, which reported that the Russian efforts in the Florida counties weren’t successful.
The reason, in part, was that after the first email attack was made in August, the FBI held a conference call with election supervisors to put them on alert about what to look for.
Serious stuff, right?
Imagine what would happen if, on Election Day, voting in key states was slowed, interrupted or invalidated because of widespread problems in authenticating voters.
Imagine if you showed up at your precinct and the poll worker said your voter information didn’t match, or your listed precinct was 30 miles away and that your only recourse was to step aside and fill out a provisional ballot. Imagine what this would do to the lines at the polls and the numbers of people who would walk away because their lunch hour had ended or they had to pick up children at school.
Imagine what would happen if, in a close presidential election, the vote tallies in a key swing state such as Florida were compromised by the hacking from a hostile government’s military intelligence wing.
Imagine what that would do in an already super-charged, hyperpartisan country like ours.
The real scandal may be just how uninterested Trump has been about this and the purported help he received from Russian operatives to hack Hillary Clinton’s campaign and to generate and spread fake news stories against her before the election.
“We’ve got to get to the bottom of this,” U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said recently. “That there were up to a thousand paid internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia, in effect, taking over a series of computers, which was called a ‘bot net.’ They can then generate news down to specific areas.”
Trump has had little appetite for this vein of exploration. Probably because any suggestion of Russian help to his campaign tarnishes what he has called his “massive landslide victory.” And that since being elected he hasn’t divorced himself from his business empire, which has relied heavily on Russian investment.
Here just a local sampler: At least 63 units of Trump-branded South Florida high-rises have been purchased by people with Russian passports or addresses, totaling some $100 million, according to a Reuters news service investigation. And the buyer of Trump’s oceanfront home at 515 N. County Road, in Palm Beach, in 2008 was a Russian fertilizer oligarch who paid Trump $53.6 million more than Trump paid for the home four years earlier.
And USA Today reported that 70 percent of his properties in New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles are now being bought by untraceable shell companies since his nomination — a dramatic increase from his pre-presidential days when the shadowy buyers were just 4 percent of the total.
Trump has grudgingly gone from disputing the Russia meddling to saying it had nothing to do with him or his administration, even after the firing of his NSA Director Mike Flynn for his secret meetings with Russian officials during the presidential transition period.
Since being elected, Trump has welcomed high-level Russian officials in the Oval Office, where he gave them top-secret intelligence while telling them about firing his “nut job” FBI Director James Comey for creating “great pressure” on him over the Russia investigation, according to a document summarizing the meeting.
Whether candidate Trump or his campaign staffers colluded with the Russians, or were simply the unwitting beneficiaries of their meddling, is yet to be revealed. But this matter ought to be something that Americans of all political bents want to be answered.
On Thursday, hours after The Washington Post reported that Trump was now the subject of a criminal investigation over possible obstruction of justice, he tweeted this: “You are witnessing the single biggest WITCH HUNT in American political history — led by some very bad and conflicted people!”
I don’t know what “bad people” he is talking about. But by focusing on punishing the leakers and criticizing or firing the investigators, Trump seems to be trying to make sure that Americans know less, not more, of Russia’s efforts to disrupt our ability to hold trustworthy elections.
And in the long run, I can’t imagine how that benefits any American other than himself.