President Donald Trump on Tuesday fired top cybersecurity official Chris Krebs in a message on Twitter, accusing him without evidence of making a "highly inaccurate" statement affirming the November 3 election was secure and rejecting claims of fraud.
Trump has made debunked allegations that the election was "rigged" and has refused to concede defeat to President-elect Joe Biden. His campaign has filed a flurry of lawsuits in battleground states, although election officials in both parties have said they see no evidence of serious irregularities.
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Reuters reported last week that Krebs, who worked on protecting the election from hackers but drew the ire of the Trump White House over efforts to debunk disinformation, had told associates he expected to be fired.
Trump said on Twitter that Krebs had assured people in a "highly inaccurate" statement that the election had been secure when there were "massive improprieties and fraud - including dead people voting, Poll Watchers not allowed into polling locations," and voting machine errors that flipped votes from Trump to Biden.
Dozens of election security experts on Monday released a letter saying claims of major hacks were unsubstantiated and absurd on their face.
Twitter slapped warning labels on Trump's posts, noting: "This claim about election fraud is disputed."
Krebs headed the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) from its inception two years ago.
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He angered the White House over a website run by CISA dubbed "Rumor Control," which debunks misinformation about the election, according to the three people familiar with the matter.
A CISA spokesperson said the agency had no comment.
Krebs was not given notice of Trump's plan to fire him, according to a person familiar with the matter, and learned of the decision through Twitter.
CISA Executive Director Brandon Wales is expected to take over for Krebs as the acting head of the agency on Wednesday, an agency official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Wales has served in multiple positions within the DHS under the Trump administration and is not seen as a partisan figure, said a former colleague.
The Reuters report last week prompted an outpouring of support from security experts across the country, who praised Krebs for his bipartisan work in the past two years.
The White House's displeasure with Krebs grew over the past year, according to two former U.S. officials, as Trump criticized the security of mail-in voting and Krebs' agency countered by saying it represented a secure way to vote. Mail-in balloting reached a record high this year because of voter concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
'We did it right'
On his own Twitter account, Krebs did not back down, writing: "Honored to serve. We did it right. Defend Today, Secure Tomorrow."
White House officials had previously complained about CISA content that pushed back against false claims about the election, including that Democrats were behind a mass election fraud scheme. CISA officials declined to delete accurate information.
Among other things, one associate of Krebs said the White House was angry about a post rejecting a conspiracy theory that falsely claimed an intelligence agency supercomputer and program, purportedly named Hammer and Scorecard, could have flipped votes nationally. No such system exists, according to Krebs, election security experts and former U.S. officials.
A spokeswoman for President-elect Joe Biden said: "Chris Krebs should be commended for his service in protecting our elections, not fired for telling the truth."
Trump's move was also quickly denounced by security officials and White House critics.
"Krebs was doing important work defending critical infrastructure and fighting disinformation," said Harri Hursti, an expert on electronic voting security. "His firing is very disappointing and appears to be an attempt to undermine the great work he and others at DHS/CISA have been doing."
Democrat Adam Schiff, who heads the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said: "The CISA and Director Krebs have worked diligently to safeguard our elections, provide vital support to state and local election officials, and inform the American people about what was true and what was not."
Independent Senator Angus King said Trump was “firing Mr Krebs for simply doing his job."
"I hope that President-elect Biden will recognize Chris’s contributions, and consult with him as the Biden administration charts the future of this critically important agency,” King said.
Senator Ben Sasse, who has been a Trump critic, was among the first Republicans to push back against the decision.
"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," Sasse said in a statement.