Future Tense

Trump’s Firing of Christopher Krebs Threatens the Security of Future Elections

Christopher Krebs in a suit, in a wood-paneled room with his forehead wrinkled.
Christopher Krebs in Washington on May 14, 2019. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Of all the things you may be grateful for this Thanksgiving, Christopher Krebs should be high on the list. Krebs was the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security up until Tuesday, when President Donald Trump fired him. The move had been rumored for days, with Krebs reportedly even telling people he expected to be fired, after his agency put out a statement on Nov. 12 calling the 2020 U.S. election “the most secure in American history.” It got to the point where the fact that Krebs hadn’t been fired was making headlines, so clearly the writing was on the wall.

Even with all that notice, even in the context of this administration’s never-ending stream of firings, this one stings. What Krebs didn’t say in the Nov. 12 statement, but what many people both inside and outside the federal government know, was that the reason the Nov. 3 election was so secure was due, in no small part, to Krebs and the agency he headed.

CISA is a relatively new organization, formed in 2018 to replace the National Protection and Programs Directorate as the entity responsible for securing U.S. critical infrastructure from cyberthreats. Helping to secure U.S. elections is only one part of its mission, since critical infrastructure includes a wide range of industry sectors beyond voting systems, but it’s undeniably one of the most visible of its roles, and one where it has made the most headway in the past few years. Krebs, who had been at DHS since 2017, became the new agency’s first director in 2018 and oversaw its efforts to partner with states on election security for the 2018 and 2020 elections, both of which went very smoothly from a cybersecurity perspective.

There’s still a huge amount of work to be done when it comes to securing the U.S. elections infrastructure, but CISA made significant progress in gaining the trust of state election officials and working with them to address concerns and issues in real time. This year, it even operated a “24/7 virtual war room” for election officials to discuss any suspicious activity they witnessed during the election and to receive classified threat intelligence about risks to the voting systems and how to defend against them. Prior to the election, CISA also worked with states to help them test their voting systems and implement more secure machines that create paper records of every vote cast in order to allow for audits.

This is slow, thankless work, for the most part. It requires getting any number of state and local officials to allow the federal government to provide them with feedback and guidance on their own particular voting setups—something that not every state has welcomed or wanted—and then working within their particular constraints to help secure whatever equipment and machines they already have or can afford to buy. Trying to make the sprawling, decentralized, vulnerability-riddled U.S. voting systems more secure is a genuinely daunting feat and the fact that CISA, under Krebs, has managed to win the trust of so many election officials across the country—and provide them with resources and advice those places can actually use—is a phenomenal testament to the hard work and commitment of its staff.

It’s also a testament to Krebs that he was able to lie low for as long as he did and largely keep CISA’s work under the radar during the tumultuous Trump presidency. Securing the nation’s critical infrastructure shouldn’t be a politically charged or partisan goal, but the same could have been said of the work of plenty of other government agencies that were thrust into the spotlight for various tussles with the president over seemingly routine and innocuous decisions. So perhaps it was inevitable that Krebs would, eventually, end up crossing swords with the president when he tried to dispel the rumors and misinformation about the security of the election, for instance, by debunking a conspiracy theory about a (fictitious) supercomputer dubbed Hammer that changed vote tallies using (nonexistent) software called Scorecard.

Firing Krebs may not be the most damaging or infuriating decision Trump has made during his presidency, but it represents a major setback to one piece of the federal government that was actually working. Slowly but surely, CISA was gradually making progress on something big and important and difficult—progress that will now likely come to a halt until the agency and its leadership can be rebuilt, and the trust they worked so hard to establish with state and local officials can be regained. And however hard it may have been to build those relationships the first time, it will only become harder now that the president has publicly disavowed the agency’s work. By firing Krebs and jeopardizing CISA’s work, Trump is not just trying to undercut confidence in the security of the election we’ve just finished, he’s also actively undermining the security of our future elections.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.