Effects Of Leadership Vacuum In Trump Administration On The U.S.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Chris Krebs is the latest head to roll in the outgoing Trump administration. Krebs led the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within the Department of Homeland Security until yesterday. Krebs received his pink slip after he confirmed, in keeping with election experts everywhere, that there were no big security problems in the 2020 election. Now, you will recall this follows the president firing Defense Secretary Mark Esper and forcing out other Pentagon leaders. So is this chaos for the sake of chaos or chaos with an agenda? To help answer that question, we have Garrett Graff on the line. He covers national security at WIRED.
GARRETT GRAFF: Hi.
KELLY: Hi. So start with the Krebs firing and its significance. Krebs' job, as we outlined, was protecting the election from interference, trying to shoot down misinformation. But with the election being over, was his work basically done anyway?
GRAFF: So CISA has both a defensive role with the states in terms of securing election systems, but also a big part of the work that they've been doing all year long has been combating disinformation and misinformation. And what has been clear over the last two weeks is that, increasingly, the biggest disinformation threat to the U.S. election in terms of undermining the legitimacy of the result is the president himself. And Chris Krebs had been increasingly vocal on Twitter and on the CISA website and in public remarks about debunking the president's own baseless allegations of election fraud.
KELLY: Yeah, and he had telegraphed himself that he feared that his job might be on the line as a result. But to the question of the impact - and let me sharpen that question - the impact on the Department of Homeland Security - I mean, I'm thinking in contrast with the ouster of the defense secretary at the Pentagon. And the Pentagon is a machine. It is trained to keep on churning no matter what. The Department of Homeland Security is a much newer department, and they have had no permanent leader, no Senate-confirmed leader for a while. So what is the impact of this kind of upheaval?
GRAFF: So it's not insignificant and particularly with CISA and particularly in the midst of a pandemic. The infrastructure security side of CISA's mission, in fact, focuses on securing the health care sector. They've been actively engaged in fighting the scourge of ransomware that has been hitting hospitals and health care networks across the country as they tried to deal with critically ill COVID patients. And of course, CISA has a role in defending and protecting the intellectual property and supply chains necessary to support the development and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.
So this has real public health and national security implications within a department that is deeply struggling with a leadership crisis. DHS, writ large, has less than a third of its Senate-confirmed positions filled right now. And in fact, it's not really sure who is legally in charge of the department. There are a lot of questions about whether acting Secretary Chad Wolf was properly installed. And over the weekend, DHS actually secretly appointed FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor to be the acting secretary briefly to ratify the selection of acting Secretary Chad Wolf as the correct secretary. And, you know, legally, they can't really prove in court right now who is in charge of that department.
KELLY: OK, so a lot of uncertainty hovering over the Department of Homeland Security. Telescope out a little bit, just big picture. What is the effect of so much change of all these shakeups being implemented during a transition period?
GRAFF: We've never seen anything like this, Mary Louise. And it's important to think of the federal government and sort of what it projects to the world. There are really sort of three legs of security and stability that the U.S. government, at its most basic level, tries to focus on. You have the Department of Defense overseas. You have the Department of Homeland Security at home. And you have the Treasury Department focused on the U.S. economy here at home. There are big leadership crises in two of those departments, and the Treasury Department faces a pretty uncertain next couple of weeks as the federal government runs out of money on December 11.
KELLY: So just in the few seconds we have left, do you think this chaos will ultimately amount to a few weeks of chaos and then we'll move on, or do you see more enduring consequences?
GRAFF: There are certainly more enduring consequences that we face here because, remember, the GSA has not officially declared Joe Biden the president-elect and allowed him to begin the formal transition process. Every hour and every day right now is making Joe Biden's role of taking over this job on January 20 at noon harder.
KELLY: Right. Garrett Graff - he covers national security at WIRED.
Garrett, thank you.
GRAFF: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.