Within minutes of Donald Trump tweeting that he had fired Christopher Krebs as the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity agency Tuesday night, Twitter slapped on a warning label that the accompanying claim about electoral fraud “is disputed.” The disinformation warning was, in some ways, a fitting denouement to a two-week-long battle between Krebs, the head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and his boss in the Oval Office. Ultimately, Krebs’ mission to protect and defend the November election collided with the president’s refusal to accept its results.
The firing of Krebs marks perhaps the most upsetting moment for democracy since the president’s refusal to accept his election loss two weeks ago. Trump has since spread disinformation wildly and has prevented the government bureaucracy from beginning a normal, peaceful transition. His increasingly quixotic legal battle has seen over a dozen courtroom losses across multiple states.
Krebs did nothing more than tell the truths that Trump is trying to ignore; he was fired for almost literally pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.
Out of Control
In the eyes of all but one person, the Department of Homeland Security’s “Rumor Control” website has been a runaway success. Created in the run-up to this month’s election by CISA, which oversees the Department of Homeland Security’s election-focused work, the website has been rapidly fact-checking and debunking all manner of conspiracies, misunderstandings, and outright disinformation circulating online.
The Rumor Control exercise proved an integral part of one of the most surprising aspects of this year’s presidential election: After Russia’s multifront attack in 2016 sparked four years of scrambling to protect and defend the 2020 campaigns, the US government and the nation’s secretaries of state managed to successfully navigate a fraught and complex election mid-pandemic without major foreign interference and without any serious allegation of fraud or hacking.
And yet, in the two weeks since the election, CISA’s Rumor Control efforts have increasingly had to fight an unexpected adversary: Donald Trump. The president’s Twitter feed continues to spew and amplify nonsensical counting and ballot conspiracies, often all in caps.
CISA director Krebs didn’t back down from the unprecedented challenge. His own tweets and the Rumor Control site took on the president’s disinformation at first obliquely and then increasingly directly—even specifically referencing lies spread from the Oval Office. By last Thursday afternoon, as the Trump administration’s petty—and largely performative—purge of officials seen as insufficiently loyal spread across the government, Reuters reported that Krebs expected to be fired imminently.
And yet CISA pushed forward. Thursday night, the agency released a strong and remarkable statement signed by nearly every major player in the US election, including the US Election Assistance Commission chair, the presidents of the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors, as well as other security leaders. “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history,” they said together. In bold text, the statement continued: “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”
A flurry of further articles on Friday and over the weekend documented the collision path between Krebs and the president. After a quiet Monday when it appeared that perhaps CISA and the White House had reached a stalemate, the president announced on Twitter shortly after 7 pm Tuesday, two weeks to the hour after polls began closing on Election Day, that Krebs was terminated immediately.
“The recent statement by Chris Krebs on the security of the 2020 Election was highly inaccurate, in that there were massive improprieties and fraud—including dead people voting, Poll Watchers not allowed into polling locations, ‘glitches’ in the voting machines which changed … votes from Trump to Biden, late voting, and many more,” Trump wrote. “Therefore, effective immediately, Chris Krebs has been terminated as Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.” Twitter quickly slapped its weak-willed warning labels on both tweets, since none of the president’s allegations have been borne out despite extensive monitoring, recounts, and court battles.