Trump team on watch for adversaries seeking to exploit the president’s illness

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But Defense Department officials acknowledged separately that they will be on the lookout for opportunistic activities by adversaries, either on the ground, in cyberspace or in the form of information warfare.

“There is always the possibility that adversaries will seek to exploit the information space and talk propaganda,” said one defense official. “We are definitely monitoring and keeping aware.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), acting chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted on Friday that “any adversary who views news of @POTUS testing positive as an opportunity to test the United States would be making a grave mistake.”

Broadly speaking, governments about to hold an election or in the process of transitioning from one leader to another are considered more vulnerable than usual to outside exploitation. The U.S. has long gone through elections and transfers of power without any major disruptions, with national security officials on the lookout for problems.

But Trump’s hints that he might not recognize the results if he loses to Democratic rival Joe Biden have added unusual tension to this year’s elections. And now that he has been stricken with the coronavirus, that injects even more uncertainty weeks before the election or any potential transition.

“There is a process for government to function even if you have a president who’s distracted or incapacitated,” said Chris Lu, the executive director of the 2008 Barack Obama transition effort. “Trump’s Covid diagnosis adds an additional level of uncertainty at a time when we know foreign adversaries are trying to exploit our weaknesses.”

Pentagon officials are watching the social media feeds of adversaries such as Iran, Russia and China for disinformation campaigns and efforts to exploit any perceived weakness in American leadership to peddle influence around the world, the defense official said.

“What we are anticipating is that the Russian actors and probably the Iranians will play this up,” though it is still unclear what angle they will take, another senior administration official said. The official added that outside experts who monitor this kind of activity have been consulted and that the intelligence community has an eye on what adversaries are discussing through their own communications channels.

Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said the company began tracking potential misinformation and disinformation on the platform related to Trump’s Covid diagnosis immediately after he announced it early Friday morning.

Observers noted that, so far at least, Trump is still in charge.

“What we have right now is a president in quarantine, but not a president incapacitated, so he’s fully capable of communicating, of directing government, of speaking and engaging with his staff and Cabinet members and the rest,” said Thomas Shannon, a former senior State Department official. “I think right now we’re OK.”

Top Pentagon officials came in contact with Trump at the White House on Sunday for a Gold Star Families event, Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman confirmed. Defense Secretary Mark Esper tested negative on Monday and Wednesday in preparation for a trip to North Africa, and will be tested again Friday, Hoffman said. Esper will not be returning to the United States early.

Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley also tested negative Friday morning, Hoffman said.

“The Secretary, Mrs. Esper, Chairman Milley, and Mrs. Milley send their thoughts and prayers to the President and First Lady for a swift recovery,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman also said there has been “no change to DoD alert levels,” noting that the E-6B nuclear command-and-control aircraft seen flying over the country Friday morning were “part of pre-planned missions. “Any timing to the president’s announcement was purely coincidental,” Hoffman said.

A Trump administration official said national security adviser Robert O’Brien is now requiring that all National Security Council staffers wear masks in common areas.

In the meantime, intelligence officials will likely be looking for a “subtle increase in activity against us, knowing we are preoccupied, and the opportunity to test us, perhaps,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA senior Intelligence Service officer who retired in 2019.

He noted that the Iranians might be pondering, for example, whether the U.S. response might be weaker if they launch more rockets against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad or make another aggressive, sudden move. And he expected the Russians to spread disinformation about U.S. government dysfunction and Trump being incapacitated.

“Our enemies will see us in a vulnerable state,” Polymeropoulos said.

Trump and his wife, Melania, tested positive for the virus on Thursday night, nine months after Covid-19 first hit the United States and just 32 days before the election. The 74-year-old president disclosed his diagnosis in a tweet at 12:54 a.m. on Friday, hours after news broke that top White House aide Hope Hicks had tested positive.

“The biggest question mark now is adversaries’ perception of how vulnerable they think the president is,” said Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center. “A major U.S. adversary could miscalculate and see this as an opportunity to do something they were already planning to do — for example, is this an opportune time for [Russian President] Vladimir Putin to make a move because he thinks the president is distracted?”

In a telegram message Friday, Putin wished Trump well. “I’m confident that your inherent vitality, good spirits and optimism will help you overcome this dangerous virus,” he said.

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