SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Midterm elections are less than a hundred days away. Russia is expected to try to interfere with them, as it did in 2016. The White House held a briefing on Thursday to say they're on it. Here's Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
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DAN COATS: The president has specifically directed us to make the matter of the election meddling and securing our election process a top priority. And we have done that and are doing that and will continue to do so.
SIMON: President Trump himself hasn't said much on the subject. We're joined now by Eric Geller. He's a cybersecurity reporter for Politico. Mr. Geller, thanks for being with us.
ERIC GELLER: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: White House brought out all the top national security officials. What did you notice in their statements?
GELLER: Well, the first thing to point out is that this was a clear effort to sort of rebut the perception that the administration is not on top of this issue - a perception that comes largely from the president not engaging on the issue and offering some contradictory statements. So, you look at all the things they said, and this was very much an effort to say, don't worry. Trust us; we're on it. We understand the threat. Dan Coats and John Bolton, the national security advisor, said repeatedly, the president has tasked us to move forward. So this was really an effort to say, we understand the threat, and we take it seriously.
SIMON: Regardless of what President might say before or after their appearance.
GELLER: That's exactly right. This is an effort to reassure people who think that the leadership void at the top is creating, you know, operational problems.
SIMON: What seems to be the bigger concern - hackers who might target databases and actual voting equipment or social media bots?
GELLER: Well, certainly right now, the more active Russian effort is on social media. The intelligence community - they're seeing a lot of that right now, not a lot of hacking. But I think Americans are better inoculated to that technique than they were in 2016. What I would be worried about is that you have some voter registration databases out there that haven't been upgraded with the federal money that states have received. And if that's the case, you could break in there, you could drop some registration information. And even if you don't change the outcome, you do create a public confidence crisis.
SIMON: And this past week, House Republicans rejected a proposal to spend more on election security. They say the states already have enough grant money set aside for it. What would any additional money have gone towards?
GELLER: Well, we did a story recently that explored why states aren't fixing some of the most serious vulnerabilities, which are the paperless voting machines - the voting machines where if something is changed, you can't tell because there is no paper record that's permanent, that can be audited. So that's something right now that a lot of states, including, by the way, Texas, where their three largest counties use paperless voting machines. Just to replace the machines in those three counties would cost twice as much money as they received for the entire state. So that gives you a sense of the scale of the problem. But obviously, you have some lawmakers, including Senator James Lankford, who's the cosponsor of bipartisan election security legislation, who said recently, he wants to see an audit of how this money is spent to make sure it's being used properly before he votes for more spending.
SIMON: Are states a lot more active - or maybe I should say proactive - than they were in 2016?
GELLER: I would say so. I think states have realized that this is a situation that undermines what they're trying to do, which is encourage confidence in the process. You know, your mind can run wild with all kinds of possibilities of hacking and changing votes, and that's bad for state election officials. They want you to come out and vote. So they are really trying to do a lot more. But again, a lot of these states just don't have the money to make some of these fixes.
SIMON: What is the effect of President Trump? Publicly, he seems to change his mind from minute to minute as to whether or not this is important.
GELLER: Yeah, it's interesting to look at the difference between what he says and what, you know, the folks on the ground, so to speak, that I talk to at these agencies - you know, they are not affected by what the president is saying in terms of the authority that they have, the relationships that they have with states.
On the other hand, Jim Condos, who's the secretary of state up in Vermont - he's the head of the National Association of Secretaries of State. And I recently interviewed him for a C-SPAN show. And he said, the president really needs to get on message with his senior officials because it makes our job harder out here in the states to tell people the Russian threat is real when some of them are listening to the president who says, in fact, it's not real.
SIMON: Eric Geller of Politico, thanks very much for being with us.
GELLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.