BETHESDA, Md. — He’s a Marine Corps veteran of the U.S. Cyber Command, and in May 2016, Robert Johnston was the first to discover Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee’s servers.
Johnston immediately recognized the signature elements of a Russian cyber-attack. But he couldn’t anticipate the all-consuming narrative of Russian meddling set to dominate the first years of the Trump presidency.
“When the DNC asked me and my team to investigate the hack, you’re just focused on the mission,” Johnston said in an interview Sunday. “My small part in assisting in the defense of the 2016 elections is kind of overshadowed by this large campaign, that was really a war.”
But Johnston’s initial conclusion, backed with high confidence by U.S. intelligence agencies, is clearly still met with skepticism by President Trump.
Within the rough phone transcript now at the heart of Trump’s impeachment’s inquiry, the president strongly suggested he remains unconvinced of Russia’s role.
“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike,” Trump said to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on a July 25 call.
“I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it.”
CrowdStrike refers to the American cyber-security company that employed Johnston after his military career in 2016.
The references to Ukraine and a server suggest a right-wing conspiracy theory, claiming without evidence that the hacked DNC servers are in Ukraine – and Russia carried no responsibility for any hacking.
“I see a president that's babbling to the Ukrainian president about old conspiracy theories that were never grounded to begin with,” Johnston said.
“I’m certainly not sure how we got to this point. This is the story that just won’t die.”
Johnston also assumed from 2016 that other nation states would try to replicate Russia’s playbook.
On Friday, Microsoft disclosed that Iranian hackers took aim at a presidential campaign, with reports later identifying the Trump re-election email accounts as some of the intended targets.
“Iran drew first blood, they're attempting, of course, to cause a little bit of fear in the 2020 elections,” Johnston said. “I think there's just more to come.”