Christopher Krebs, who led the federal government's efforts to secure the 2020 election, was fired by President Trump last month for saying the election went smoothly and with no signs of cheating or interference.
In reflecting on whether that was the right decision, considering how such a statement would contradict Trump's baseless claims of fraud and hacking, Krebs told NPR he has no regrets.
"It was the right thing to do in the name of democracy," Krebs said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep.
Krebs, a self-described "lifelong Republican," has become something of a symbol for government officials who see their work as nonpartisan even as politicians try to paint them otherwise.
As the inaugural head of the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Krebs led an effort to improve communication between state and local election jurisdictions about threat activity and election security best practices.
The 2016 election, and the Russian attack on it, laid bare how little of that communication was happening between the many thousands of election officials across the country.
Krebs saw the 2020 election as the culmination of 3 1/2 years of hard work to change that.
"This was a secure election," Krebs said. "That is a success story. That is something everyone in the administration should be proud of. That's the story I feel we should be telling now."
Instead, Krebs' former agency has spent much of the past few weeks batting down baseless claims by the president and his legal team about the security of the vote.
Earlier this year, CISA launched a website dubbed Rumor Control, aimed at debunking election disinformation spreading on social media. And while Krebs said the site was not aimed at any one source, he said that after the election, the president's campaign became a major spreader of bad information.
"We certainly saw throughout that a number of people associated with the campaign, were pushing certain narratives that we fundamentally knew to be false," Krebs said, while listing a number of claims about which Trump himself has tweeted. "We knew that it was important to get this information out there."
The totality of that information ultimately led to his firing by Trump, in a tweet on Nov. 17. The president pointed to a statement that Krebs' agency put out, alongside a number of other government organizations, which called 2020 "the most secure election in American history."
Going forward, Krebs said he is most worried about how misinformation about elections has "seeped into the mainstream" and what that will mean for people's confidence in results.
"We're in a very dangerous spot right now," he said. "Continuing to push narratives that call into question, without evidence that I've seen, about the systems, about the machines, about the public servants involved in elections: That's not just damaging to the psyche of the American voter, it's also doing a serious disservice to the many election officials out there who, above all else, are upholding one of our most cherished public institutions."
One of the easiest ways government can improve people's opinions of voting, he added, is to invest more resources and money into election administration.
"We have to restore confidence in democracy," he said. "To me, one of the best and simplest ways to do that is to invest in democracy."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The nation's former top security - cybersecurity official was fired by President Trump after saying the 2020 election was the most secure ever. Now Chris Krebs is talking with us. Krebs lost his job two weeks ago after correcting voter fraud disinformation, contradicting the president's baseless claims of fraud. Krebs talked with Steve Inskeep on Monday, which was the same day Wisconsin and Arizona certified their vote tallies with President-elect Joe Biden winning both states.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Chris Krebs describes himself as a lifelong Republican appointed by President Trump. His job was working with many government agencies to assure an accurate and reliable vote. He says the effort worked.
CHRIS KREBS: This was a secure election. That is a success story. That is something that everyone in the administration should be proud of.
INSKEEP: Krebs was fired after making statements just like that. His agency within the Department of Homeland Security contradicted President Trump's disinformation designed to overturn a democratic election. Krebs says the United States upgraded its defenses against computer hacking but faced a different kind of threat.
KREBS: What has become known as a perception hack, where a adversary could claim that a system was compromised or magnify a vulnerability or magnify an insignificant compromise - and I think, ultimately, that's what we considered the biggest risk we were going to have to address.
INSKEEP: What was the president's role, if any, in accelerating disinformation?
KREBS: Well, we certainly saw throughout that a number of people associated with the campaign, some of the legal team were pushing certain narratives that we just fundamentally knew to be false, including foreign manipulation of voting systems, that there was an algorithm. We knew that it was important to get this information out there, that we had to put information in front of people that may be considering other sources of information. We just wanted to provide additional facts, more information.
INSKEEP: Did you know that - particularly, I think of when you brought agencies together and got everybody behind a statement saying that this had been an extremely secure election - did you know that you might be - well, that you might be fired?
KREBS: So what you bring up here is a statement that was released on November 12 by a group of organizations, both federal government, state and local government representatives, as well as members of the private sector, including some of the systems' - the vendors. And it was a community statement. It was based on the work that everyone had done over the last 3 1/2 years. It was important to get that statement out. And whether I or anyone else thought it was a, you know, career-limiting move, I don't think, A, that crossed my mind necessarily. And even if it had, it wouldn't have mattered because it was the right thing to do in the name of democracy.
INSKEEP: You have been active since your dismissal in speaking up for the security of this election still because the president and others have continued to push false claims about the security of the election. How much damage is being done?
KREBS: I think that continuing to push narratives that call into question - without evidence that I've seen - about the systems, about the machines, about the public servants involved in elections and administration of election, that's not just damaging to the psyche of the American voter, but I think it's also doing a serious disservice to the many election officials out there who are, above all else, upholding one of our most cherished public institutions. And that's, you know, voting.
If I can help one person out there overcome this disinfo that's out there, then I feel like it's a good day's work.
INSKEEP: What have you thought about as the conspiracy theory QAnon, which is supportive of the president, has been blended in some ways with the false conspiracies about the election?
KREBS: I try not to think about QAnon too much. It makes my head hurt. The biggest challenge we're going to have is now that disinformation, political disinformation, disinformation related to the administration of elections and government seems to have seeped into the mainstream, what are the mechanisms that we're going to use to restore confidence in elections, restore confidence in democracy ultimately? And, you know, those are the things that I think about now that I'm out of the job. Those are the things that I think about (laughter) every day, all day long.
INSKEEP: How worried are you about the future of democracy?
KREBS: I think we're in a really dangerous spot right now. We have to restore confidence in democracy. And to me, one of the best and simplest ways to do that is invest in democracy, invest in elections. The key difference between 2020 and 2016 for me is that in 2020, 95 or so percent of votes cast had a voter verifiable paper audit trail. In 2016, that number was 82%. And what that means is that you can go back and check the results to ensure that they're consistent over and over and over again. Congress needs to take a victory lap on that because they appropriated grants to states over the last three years to help states like Georgia and Pennsylvania put in these systems with paper ballots. They didn't have them in 2016.
INSKEEP: I think you're telling me that Republicans in Congress voted for ballot security and that they could now be saying, hey, this works; this is great. There's an entirely different narrative that ought to be taking precedence here.
KREBS: There were several election security related pieces of legislation in the House and the Senate over the last couple years that never got across the finish line for one reason or the other. There were, however, some that did that were baked into or included in pieces of legislation like the National Defense Authorization Act. And there was a billion-plus dollars in grant funding sent out to states. And so I think that's a success story No. 1. Success story No. 2 is that this was a secure election. That's the story that I feel we should be telling right now.
INSKEEP: Mr. Krebs, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.
KREBS: Thanks a lot, Steve.
INSKEEP: Chris Krebs led the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security. President Trump appointed him to that job and later fired him from it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.