Amid a low in relations, the U.S. is closing its last two consulates in Russia.
But as his administration winds down, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is publicly blaming Moscow for a massive cyberattack that has affected several government agencies, including the most sensitive ones that oversee the nuclear weapons stockpile and COVID-19 vaccine research.
Less than 24 hours later, Trump contradicted that with his first comments on the SolarWinds hack, tweeting that it was exaggerated by the media and that China could be responsible.
It fits a familiar pattern of the last four years — senior Trump officials trying to be tough on Moscow, while Trump downplays the threat. Amid the ongoing hack, Pompeo is also closing the last two U.S. consulates in Russia, citing the caps on American personnel that Moscow has forced on the U.S. mission in recent years.
Once welcomed by Trump, those caps, which have hamstrung U.S. diplomats, were Russian retaliation against U.S. sanctions for its aggression online, in neighboring Ukraine, and with chemical weapons.
“This was a very significant effort, and I think it’s the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity,” Pompeo told conservative radio host Mark Levin late Friday, hours before Trump’s tweet.
Michael Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, pauses while speaking at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta,, Dec. 9, 2020.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
But Pompeo also indicated that the administration is not planning to take any action against Vladimir Putin’s government, at least not publicly: “There are many things that you’d very much love to say, ‘Boy, I’m going to call that out,’ but a wiser course of action to protect the American people is to calmly go about your business and defend freedom.”
The SolarWinds hack is a “significant and ongoing cybersecurity campaign,” according to the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The intrusion involves software from SolarWinds, which makes IT management tools, that had been “Trojanized” with a vulnerability that could be exploited by hackers to steal information, manipulate systems or plant trap doors and other exploits for future use.
Russia has denied responsibility for the hack. So far, the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Commerce, and Energy, as well as the National Institutes of Health all have reportedly been affected.
The magnitude of this ongoing attack is hard to overstate,” Trump’s former homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert wrote this week. “If it is Russia, President Trump must make it clear to Vladimir Putin that these actions are unacceptable. The U.S. military and intelligence community must be placed on increased alert; all elements of national power must be placed on the table.”
After days of silence, Trump claimed on Saturday that the media is exaggerating the security breach’s impact. He said he has “been fully briefed and everything is well under control.”
He went on to tweet that China may be behind the attack instead of Russia and claimed that there “could also have been a hit on our ridiculous voting machines during the election.”
While no public response seems to be coming soon, the U.S. is being forced to take another step that will cut into relations with Russia — closing its last two consulates in the country.