Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster said Thursday that President Donald Trump is “aiding and abetting” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to sow doubt about the American electoral system.
The stern warning from McMaster, who Trump handpicked to lead the White House National Security Council in 2017, came in an interview on MSNBC, after he was asked whether he agreed that the president posed the greatest threat to U.S. election integrity.
“I agree that he is aiding and abetting Putin’s efforts by not being direct about this, right? By not just calling out Putin for what he’s doing,” McMaster said.
“You know, Putin gets away with, I mean, literally murder or attempted murder … because people don’t call him out on it,” he added. “And so they are able to continue with this kind of fire hose of falsehood, to sow these conspiracy theories. And we just can’t be our own worst enemies.”
McMaster was referring to the president’s complaints about mail-in balloting and claims of widespread voter fraud in the closing months of the general election campaign. Trump has repeatedly said Democrats are sending millions of “unsolicited” ballots to Americans and that the outcome of the election may not be known for months, if it is ever determined.
But only nine states are automatically mailing all voters ballots this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, and five of those states regularly mail every voter a ballot. Experts acknowledge there are some slightly higher fraud risks associated with mail-in voting compared with in-person voting, but only when proper security measures are not in place.
Cases of election fraud in the U.S. are exceedingly rare, and there is no proof of the type of mass fraud that the president has alleged. Trump’s own FBI director, Christopher Wray, testified before Congress last month that bureau officials “have not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it’s by mail or otherwise.”
Trump declined last month to say whether he would commit to a peaceful transition of power after the election, citing his concerns over mail-in voting. And at the presidential debate Tuesday, he spread more baseless allegations, including that postal workers were selling ballots.
Trump also declined to pledge that he would not declare victory until the vote count had been independently certified, and he did not urge his supporters to refrain from engaging in civil unrest in the aftermath of the election.
Instead, Trump told them “to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” provoking alarm from local election administrators tasked with protecting voters from intimidation tactics.
Should disputes over the election’s results arise, Trump said he was “counting on” the Supreme Court to “look at the ballots.” The White House and Senate Republicans are working feverishly to confirm Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, before the election.
In the hours before the debate Tuesday, Trump’s director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, declassified a Russian intelligence assessment alleging that then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton personally approved an effort “to stir up a scandal against” Trump “by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.”
But the assessment was previously rejected by Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee as having no factual basis, and Ratcliffe himself acknowledged that the U.S. intelligence community “does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”
U.S. intelligence officials announced in August that they had concluded Russia “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden ahead of Election Day. Wray testified before Congress last month that Russia is involved in “very active efforts” to interfere in the 2020 election.
Russia previously “interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” former special counsel Robert Mueller reported last March. Asked during congressional testimony last July about potential future meddling by Russia, he responded: “It wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.”
McMaster’s remarks Thursday represent perhaps his harshest public criticism of the president since he was ousted from the White House in 2018. The Army lieutenant general frequently clashed with Trump on matters of foreign policy and was branded by detractors as not sufficiently conservative.
McMaster was Trump’s second national security adviser, replacing Michael Flynn — who became ensnared by Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential coordination with the Trump campaign.
Flynn served in the role for just 24 days before he was dismissed in 2017 for a lack of candor about conversations he had with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. during the presidential transition period before Trump’s inauguration. He reportedly misled Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials about the details of those talks.
Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian diplomat, but sought to withdraw his plea earlier this year. Although Trump’s Justice Department abandoned its prosecution of Flynn in May, the federal judge presiding over the case appointed an outside adviser who has urged him to reject the case’s dismissal.