The divisiveness in the United States is something adversaries seek to take advantage of, especially during the midterm elections, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told ABC News in an interview on Tuesday.
“The divisiveness that now grips this country is something that our adversaries, our adverse nation-states seek to exploit,” Mayorkas told ABC News Chief Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas. “And they do that on online platforms.”
The three main adversaries, he said, are Russia, China and Iran, which purposely attempt to sow discord “in the American public.”
The secretary was asked whether or not former President Donald Trump makes his job harder because people believe his falsehoods about the 2020 election. The secretary, while not directly addressing Trump by name, said the words of leaders “matter” and that the misinformation leaders perpetuate makes their job harder.
He was also asked if DHS has a responsibility to neutralize claims of election fraud.
“It is the responsibility of government, not just the Department of Homeland Security, the responsibility of government. It is a responsibility of leaders. It is the responsibility of people in positions of trust to communicate accurate information to the American public and disabuse them of falsehoods,” he said.
Mayorkas, when asked, said he has not communicated with the former president about taking the temperature of the rhetoric down.
Last week, the department warned in a bulletin obtained by ABC News that violent extremists could pose a “heightened threat” to the midterm elections, which are on Tuesday.
“The integrity of an individual’s right to vote and to be able to vote with a complete feeling of safety and security is absolutely vital. That is the foundation of our democracy,” Mayorkas said. “Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in this country. That does not mean that one gets to scream fire in a movie theater or incite people to violent acts.”
Mayorkas, who oversees the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which is primarily in charge of securing the nation’s cyber infrastructure during the midterms and beyond, said they are doing everything they can do to protect the vote, including by combatting misinformation, and that the election infrastructure is “safe and secure.”
“I think what’s important is that we will do everything that we can to protect the American public, to protect the integrity of the vote,” he said, adding that there is no credible direct threat to the election.
“It is our responsibility as a country to make sure that the American public understands what is true and what is not, in the sense that we have to build digital literacy. We have to make sure that an individual who reads things online or otherwise learns to assess the credibility of the source and make decisions for themselves as to fact or fiction,” he said.
Mayorkas also said there are a “number of forces that are fueling violent extremism, ideologies of hate, false narratives, anti-government sentiment, personal grievances.”
The attack against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, is just one example of the moment the country is in, he said.
On Friday, a suspect assaulted Paul Pelosi with a hammer after breaking into the couple’s San Francisco home in what the district attorney called “politically motivated violence.” The suspect is facing a slew of state and federal charges.
Since Mayorkas took the job in 2021, he has been sounding the alarm on domestic violent extremism in the United States. On Tuesday, he called what happened on Jan. 6 a wake-up call, along with the assault at the Pelosi home.
“Let’s think about that assault and the fact that there is not unanimity of condemnation and abhorrence in this country over that brutal act,” the secretary said. “It should be another wake-up call with respect to the moment that we’re in.”