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Trump’s firing of top election security official unsettles lawmakers

The consensus among top election officials was that the Nov. 3 election was the most secure in history. But the president disagreed.

In the days since President Donald Trump fired one of those officials — Christopher Krebs, who he had appointed two years earlier to lead the newly formed Cyber & Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA — security experts and lawmakers of both parties have spoken out in defense of the nation’s top election security official.   

“Chris Krebs is an extraordinary public servant and exactly the person Americans want protecting the security of our elections. It speaks volumes that the president chose to fire him simply for telling the truth,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In the run-up to the election and in the days after, while the Trump campaign was waging legal battles contesting results on multiple fronts, Krebs was combating disinformation with a rumor control website that knocked down many of the claims that the election had in one way or another been stolen, including claims made by the president and his surrogates.

READ MORE: As Trump continues to push false claims of fraud, top officials say election was most secure in history

In announcing the firing, Trump made clear that he objected to Krebs’ characterizations of the election, and that was the reason for his being terminated. He said Krebs’ assessments — that claims of election system manipulation were “unsubstantiated” or “technically incoherent” — had been “highly inaccurate” and that “there were massive improprieties and fraud,” though his campaign and lawyers have yet to find evidence of that. 

Krebs was the first director of CISA, which Trump signed legislation to fund in 2018. The goal of the agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is to protect critical infrastructure, including the nation’s election systems — the U.S. government’s response after the 2016 election.

“This new agency will ensure that we confront the full range of threats from nation states, cybercriminals and other malicious actors of which there are many,” Trump said when he announced its creation that year. 

During his time on the job, Krebs drew praise from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. In the wake of his firing, those lawmakers have stressed the importance of his work and raised concerns about the agency’s future.

“Chris Krebs did a really good job — as state election officials all across the nation will tell you — and he obviously should not be fired,” Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in an emailed statement. “I’m particularly grateful for the work he did on the Cyber[space] Solarium Commission to help the nation prepare for the future of war.”

WATCH: Why Trump fired the official charged with securing U.S. elections

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters on Capitol Hill that while Trump had a right to fire Krebs,“I think it just adds to the confusion and chaos. “I’m sure I’m not the only one that would like some return to a little bit more of a — I don’t even know what’s normal anymore,” he added.

While much of Krebs’ work focused on cybersecurity and threats of foreign interference, his expertise in election administration allowed him to assist state and local municipalities with critical infrastructure.

“One of the things that Chris was very passionate about is getting instrumentation in state systems and local municipalities that are running these election systems, so that we would know if they’re being attacked by foreign actors or domestic,” Dmitri Alperovich, co-founder and former chief technology officer of cybersecurity company Crowdstrike, told the PBS NewsHour. 

Alperovich worked with Krebs to improve the ability of local election officials to detect and withstand cyberattacks.

“Chris really did an amazing job building relationships with Democrats and Republicans alike in all the 50 states and all the different municipalities out there to build the trust, to allow CISA to come in, to audit those networks, to do penetration testing, to make sure that there’s no vulnerabilities in those networks and to help those election officials secure them,”Alperovich said.

Ben Hovland, chairman of the EAC, studies and helps disseminate election system best practices. Like Krebs, Hovland was appointed to his position by Trump, and worked side by side with Krebs leading up to the election.

“Director Krebs deserves an enormous amount of credit for his efforts, for his leadership in the space,” Hovland told the NewsHour. “One of the things that makes working on election issues difficult from the national level is the decentralized nature of our elections. And Director Krebs, I think, did a great job empowering his team to recognize that the 50 states each run elections in their own unique way.” 

After meeting with Republicans on Capitol Hill, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows was asked about Trump’s decision to fire Krebs. 

“I can tell you, as with any personnel decision, they’re a lot more complex than what may be just a headline here,” Meadows said. 

But for many lawmakers familiar with the complicated inner workings of election administration and all its facets, Trump’s reasoning seems crystal clear.

In a joint statement, Democratic Reps. Bennie Thompson, who chairs the Committee on Homeland Security, and Lauren Underwood, chairwoman of the Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Innovation Subcommittee, put it simply: “Director Krebs put national security ahead of politics and refused to use his position to do the President’s bidding, so the President fired him.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to indicate that Alperovich is the former chief technology officer of Crowdstrike.