U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday fired the nation’s top election security official, a widely respected member of his administration who had dared to refute the president’s unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud and vouch for the integrity of the vote.
While abrupt, the dismissal of Christopher Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, was not a surprise. Since his loss, Trump has been ridding his administration of officials seen as insufficiently loyal and has been denouncing the conduct of an election that led to an embarrassing defeat to Democrat Joe Biden.
That made Krebs a prime target. He had used the imprimatur of Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security, where his agency was based, to issue a stream of statements and tweets over the past week attesting to the proper conduct of the election and denouncing the falsehoods spread by the president and his supporters — without mentioning Trump by name.
Krebs stood by those assertions after his ouster.
“Honored to serve. We did it right,” he said in a brief statement on Twitter. “Defend Today, Secure Tomorrow.”
He closed with the phrase “Protect 2020,” which had been his agency’s slogan ahead of the election.
Honored to serve. We did it right. Defend Today, Secure Tomrorow. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Protect2020?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Protect2020</a>
The firing of Krebs, a Trump appointee, came the week after the dismissal of Defence Secretary Mark Esper, part of a broader shakeup that put Trump loyalists in senior Pentagon positions.
Krebs. a former Microsoft executive, ran the CISA from its creation in the wake of Russian interference with the 2016 election through the November election. He won bipartisan praise as the agency co-ordinated federal state and local efforts to defend electoral systems from foreign or domestic interference.
No credible evidence
In recent days, Krebs has repeatedly pushed back against false claims that the election was tainted. Earlier Tuesday, he tweeted out a report citing 59 election security experts saying there is no credible evidence of computer fraud in the election results.
ICYMI: On allegations that election systems were manipulated, 59 election security experts all agree, “in every case of which we are aware, these claims either have been unsubstantiated or are technically incoherent.” <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Protect2020?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Protect2020</a> <a href=”https://t.co/Oj6NciYruD”>https://t.co/Oj6NciYruD</a>
Trump fired back on Twitter later in the day. He repeated unsubstantiated claims about the vote and wrote “effective immediately, Chris Krebs has been terminated as Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.”
Officials with the CISA and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, had no immediate comment.
Members of Congress — mostly Democrats — denounced the firing.
Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House intelligence committee, hailed Krebs and assailed Trump for “retaliating against Director Krebs and other officials who did their duty. It’s pathetic, but sadly predictable that upholding and protecting our democratic processes would be cause for firing.”
One of the few Republicans joining in the criticism was Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a frequent Trump critic. “Chris Krebs did a really good job, as state election officials all across the nation will tell you, and he obviously should not be fired,” he said.
Biden campaign spokesman Michael Gwin noted that bipartisan election officials have dismissed Trump’s claims of widespread fraud. “Chris Krebs should be commended for his service in protecting our elections, not fired for telling the truth.”
Knocked down allegations of fraud
Krebs kept a low profile even as he voiced confidence ahead of the November vote and, afterward, knocked down allegations that the count was tainted by fraud. The repudiation of Trump was notable coming from a component of DHS, which has been criticized for seeming to be too closely aligned with the president’s political goals.
CISA issued statements dismissing claims that large numbers of dead people could vote or that someone could change results without detection.
It also distributed a statement from a coalition of federal and state officials concluding there was no evidence that votes were compromised or altered in the Nov. 3 election and that the vote was the most secure in American history.
CISA works with the state and local officials who run U.S. elections as well as private companies that supply voting equipment to address cybersecurity and other threats while monitoring balloting and tabulation from a control room at its headquarters near Washington. It also works with industry and utilities to protect the nation’s industrial base and power grid from threats.
The agency enjoys a good reputation among its core constituency — the state and local election officials who rely on its advice and services at a time of near-constant cyberattack — as well as on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers recently proposed an increase of its annual budget of around $2 billion US.
‘Not a partisan bone in his body’
Amid recent reports that Krebs feared he might be fired, Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, had said he was concerned and sent a text to the director to ask him if he was OK. The response was, in effect, “for now,” the Mississippi Democrat said.
“It’s a shame if someone with his talent is all of a sudden, muzzled,” Thompson said. “I have not seen a partisan bone in his body. He’s been a consummate professional.”
Rep. Jim Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat who focuses on cybersecurity issues, had called on his Republican colleagues to stand up for him before he could be removed from his post. “Chris Krebs and CISA have done so well under his leadership because he and his team have kept their heads down and done the job they were tasked with doing and not gotten caught up in partisan politics,” Langevin said.
The agency emerged from rocky beginnings. Just before President Barack Obama left office, the U.S. designated election systems as critical national security infrastructure, like dams or power plants, as a result of the interference by Russia, which included the penetration of state elections systems as well as massive disinformation.
Some state election officials and Republicans, suspicious of federal intrusion on their turf, were opposed to the designation. The National Association of Secretaries of State adopted a resolution in opposition to the move in February 2017. But the Trump administration supported the designation, and, eventually, skeptical state officials welcomed the assistance.