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Why Does the White House Suddenly Care About Election Interference?

The Trump administration is taking election meddling seriously now that it might not appear wholly beneficial

Vice President Mike Pence speaks, at the Hudson Institute in Washington. Pence said China was using its power in "more proactive and coercive ways to interfere in the domestic policies and politics of the United StatesUS China Pence, Washington, USA - 04 Oct 2018

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/REX Shutterstock

The United States and China have struggled mightily to reach a trade agreement. Last month, the stalemate grew so intense that President Trump made official a new round of tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. China responded as expected, by imposing another round of retaliatory tariffs on American imports. A few weeks later, Trump was in New York City, where at the United Nations, he delivered a speech full of the usual complaints about how unfairly the United States is being treated by the rest of the world, especially China. A day later while speaking in front of the UN Security Council, he accused the nation of interfering in America’s electoral process. “They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president to ever challenge China on trade,” the president said, echoing a tweet from earlier that month in which he wrote that “China has openly stated that they are actively trying to impact and change our election.”

On Thursday morning, Mike Pence stood behind a podium and performed what has become his most essential duty as vice president: trying to fashion his boss’ half-baked ramblings into something relatively coherent and actionable. “China has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections and the environment leading in the 2020 presidential elections,” Pence said in front of a crowd at the Hudson Institute. “To put it bluntly, President Trump’s leadership is working, and China wants a different American president. There can be no doubt. China is meddling in America’s affairs.”

Pence continued to lay out how China “is targeting U.S. state and local governments and officials,” and how the adversary is working to “split apart different domestic groups in the United States of America.” This all may very well be true. China is certainly known to meddle, and Pence did say that the intelligence community has confirmed to the White House that they are doing so with an eye toward both the 2018 and 2020 elections.

But as dangerous as the Chinese threat may be, it’s probably a stretch to call it “unprecedented.” In fact, what the vice president described Thursday morning sounds pretty familiar. Maybe like something another of America’s major adversaries executed on a massive scale prior to the 2016 election, and has continued to execute in the run-up to the 2018 midterms, both through social media propaganda and sophisticated targeting of elected officials. There’s been plenty of evidence to support the danger of these efforts, which this summer prompted Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to say the warning lights are “blinking red.” Trump barely shrugged his shoulders.

Though Pence claimed “a senior career member of our intelligence community” told him that “what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing,” the disparity, if it even exists, could not possibly be so great that China’s efforts should warrant more outrage from the White House in a month than Russia’s efforts have in the nearly two years since the president was first briefed on them. The difference, of course, is that Russia has been actively working to keep Trump in power, while China, at least according to Trump and Pence, could be working to oust him.

So incensed has Trump been by China’s alleged election meddling that he’s tweeted about it with a conspiracy-theory fervor usually reserved for bashing Jeff Sessions or deriding the Witch Hunt. The day he accused China of disrupting America’s democratic process in front of the UN Security Council, he claimed on Twitter that the nation is placing ads meant to portray his tariffs in a bad light in newspapers like the Des Moines Register.

Regardless of who placed the ads, Iowans probably don’t need to be convinced that Trump’s tariffs are hurting its farmers. Shortly after Trump imposed the latest round of them against China last month, the state’s agriculture secretary explained why they are so damaging. “It is impacting our markets and that’s impacting our farmers,” Mike Naig, a Republican, told CNBC. “Our farmers understand that there are issues that need to be resolved, particularly with China. But there is no doubt that the retaliatory tariffs are impacting our marketplace and that’s impacting our producers negatively.” (Trump has repeatedly referred to America’s suffering farmers as “patriots” for having faith in the president’s trade scheme as they stare down economic ruin.)

Also fond of dosing America’s communications bloodstream with propaganda is Russia. Trump has nary mentioned these efforts, much less posted screenshots of them to his Twitter feed. He could have brought it up last month at the UN Security Council, as he did regarding China. Russia’s foreign minister was there, too. For some strange reason, though, Trump once again failed to address Russia’s very-much-still-ongoing efforts to influence America’s elections. Some reporters found this curious, and following the sessions asked the president to compare China’s efforts to meddle versus those of Russia. “Well, I think it’s different,” Trump said. He didn’t elaborate.

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