For months, Americans have been served conflicting pronouncements from the Trump administration and lawmakers about foreign efforts to interfere in the 2020 presidential election — complicating matters for voters seeking a reliable understanding of which countries are actively meddling, and on whose behalf.
President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and others have asserted China is mounting an active interference campaign that overshadows even Russia — at times surpassing what the administration’s intelligence community has publicly described. When challenged, their response is, essentially: We’ve seen the intelligence. Trust us.
Democrats have countered with a rejoinder: We’ve also seen the intel, and it shows Russia poses the most acute threat to the 2020 election. Any other assertions, they say, simply amount to political spin to dull the sting of the intelligence community’s findings about Russian support for Trump’s reelection, which the president has long sought to downplay or deny. And Trump’s focus on China aligns with his campaign message that he has been tougher on Beijing.
“I worry a lot that there’s just so much noise and disinformation that people may not fully realize the severity of these risks,” said Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
It all amounts to a dangerous and counterproductive spat that has undermined, rather than enhanced, confidence in the 2020 election, veteran intelligence officers say.
“Maddeningly, the national conversation around election security has turned vitriolic, diversionary and unhelpful, and we are doing our enemies’ work for them,” warned Sue Gordon, the former principal deputy director of national intelligence who often briefed Trump early in his presidency.
On Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) released a whistleblower complaint from a top Homeland Security official that bolstered Democrats’ case that the administration is downplaying Russia’s 2020 activity: Senior Trump appointees had for years sought to censor and suppress evidence of the Kremlin’s malign activities in the United States, said the official, Brian Murphy.
Schiff said in a phone interview that the Trump administration’s posture toward foreign interference — to emphasize China’s activity and downplay Russia’s — not only obscures the issue but emboldens the Kremlin.
“Every time the president and his acolytes — the Bill Barrs, the John Ratcliffes and the Robert O’Briens — mislead about what Russia is doing or other countries are doing, it only encourages Russian intervention,” Schiff said.
Administration officials’ emphasis on China in their public statements stands in contrast to the increasingly specific details emerging about Russia’s active role in attempting to damage Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
On Thursday, Microsoft announced that Russian government hackers had targeted at least 200 organizations tied to the 2020 presidential election in recent weeks. The hack targeted SKDKnickerbocker, one of Biden’s chief communications and strategy firms, according to people familiar with the matter. The target of that attack appeared to be Anita Dunn, the firm’s managing director and a senior Biden campaign adviser, according to one of the people with knowledge of the incident. Reuters first reported the cyberattack targeting the firm.
Russia-linked actors have also pushed narratives about Biden being in cognitive decline and abusing his prior position to advance personal interests. On Thursday, the Treasury Department sanctioned Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker who it assessed has been acting as a Russian agent for over a decade, for his efforts to influence the U.S. election by denigrating the former vice president. Hours later, the Justice Department charged a Russian national in connection with an election interference effort.
Although Microsoft also pointed to hacking attempts by China “to gain intelligence on organizations associated with the upcoming U.S. presidential election” — including the Biden campaign, a former Trump administration official, and several D.C.-based think tanks — and Iran, which attempted to log into the accounts of administration officials and Trump campaign staff between May and June, experts said the scale and motives of the campaigns were not comparable.
“The motive for China, based on Microsoft’s disclosure, seems to be information gathering rather than election interference,” said Graham Brookie of the Atlantic Council, which was among China’s targets. “That directly refutes what politically appointed senior administration officials have been saying about ongoing election interference by China.”
Asked about the Microsoft revelations, Schiff said lawmakers are “increasingly reliant on the tech sector to tell us what they’re seeing” because of slipping confidence in assessments provided by Trump appointees.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and intelligence experts are now concerned that it may be too late to arm Americans with a clear and consistent story about the scale of foreign interference in the election — and which governments are behind it. The intelligence community’s vaguely worded public assessment, coupled with its weaponization by Trump allies seeking to offset claims about Russia, has turned the discussion into yet another partisan skirmish that’s unlikely to be settled in time for voters to make an informed judgment.
Maloney said he views this as part of Trump’s design.
“I think it’s absolutely part of their playbook to muddy the water and to conceal and deny and misrepresent what’s going on,” he said.
Democrats have been pushing the Trump administration to disclose additional details about foreign actors’ interference in the upcoming election, including information about their intentions. They have accused the president and his top officials of seeking to suppress details about Russia’s interference in this year’s campaign, which intelligence officials say is intended, again, to boost Trump.
“At this point, unless we continue to bring out our own information — if we were to accept just [the administration’s] view, it wouldn’t be the real view,” added New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Republicans, on the other hand, argue that any dispute about the intelligence is the fault of leaks — which they attribute to Democrats — intended to weaponize Russia-related intelligence to harm Trump.
“I don’t think we have a problem with the intelligence community giving us the straight scoop,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The problem is once it’s then leaked out into the public, it becomes political and politicized for partisan ends.”
Those leaks prompted Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe to significantly scale back election-security briefings for Congress, a move that Democrats said was a further politicization of intelligence by the Trump administration that would leave Americans and their representatives in the dark. Dan Coats, Trump’s first intelligence chief, spoke out against Ratcliffe’s move.
Much of the confusion can be traced to the Aug. 7 statement from top intelligence officials that warned of ongoing or “potential” election interference by Russia, China and Iran. The statement was the first to identify Derkach as an agent of Russia’s interference campaign and describe the Kremlin’s ongoing effort to damage Biden’s candidacy. But it used more couched language to describe Chinese and Iranian efforts, emphasizing that while both countries have the capacity to interfere, they had largely limited their involvement to public statements and policy pressure — not covert election meddling.
Since that statement, top Trump officials like O’Brien, Barr and Ratcliffe have used media appearances to tout the findings on China, when pressed about foreign actors interfering in the election.
“Which is the most assertive, the most aggressive in this area?” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Barr last week.
“I believe it’s China,” Barr replied.
“Why do you say that?” Blitzer replied.
“Because I’ve seen the intelligence,” he said.
White House Communications Director Alyssa Farah said the Trump administration’s approach to foreign interference has been one of “total coordination” by agencies to “thwart potential foreign influence on our elections with their defend forward strategy.”
“President Trump authorized an unprecedented $805 million for states to secure their election systems,” she said. “While much of the media only focuses on potential Russian interference in our elections, the president and his entire national security apparatus are working to stop all malign foreign actors, including the Chinese and Iranians.”
The intra-administration disputes over the intelligence go back even further, though. Trump has long sought to quash any suggestion that Russia’s interference helped him win in 2016, and in March he erupted in anger at Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence at the time, for allowing one of his deputies to brief lawmakers about Russia’s continued meddling in the 2020 race.
The NSC and Office of the Director of National Intelligence were subsequently reorganized, with career national security and intelligence officials pushed out and replaced by Trump loyalists like Michael Ellis, now the NSC’s senior director for intelligence, and Richard Grenell, who engineered a shakeup at ODNI as acting intel chief before Ratcliffe arrived as the permanent, Senate-confirmed director.
Meanwhile, the topic of election security has become something of a taboo subject within the Trump administration. The NSC’s top legislative affairs official, Virginia Boney, was removed and sent to the Commerce Department because she kept pressing the White House to prioritize election security efforts — and specifically the threat posed by Russia, according to one current and one former senior administration official. To date, while the NSC has held several deputies-level meetings on the topic, there have been no traditional Principals Committee meetings — with senior Cabinet officials and the president — on the subject this year, according to another Trump administration official.
An NSC spokesperson said they do not comment on personnel matters. Boney declined to comment.
Efforts have followed to downplay Russia’s malign activities in the U.S., according to Murphy’s whistleblower complaint, and play up the threats posed by China and Iran. Just over a month after Maguire’s ouster, amid the staff moves on the NSC, acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf told Murphy to stop reporting on Russian interference and focus on China and Iran instead, Murphy alleged — a mandate Wolf said came from O’Brien.
O’Brien has denied Murphy’s accusations. Miles Taylor, a former senior DHS official who served as former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s chief of staff, said that while he did not have firsthand knowledge of most of Murphy’s claims, “what is true is that Donald Trump has created a culture of fear and intimidation toward his own officials when it comes to one of the most important national security threats America faces. The dangers of foreign adversaries meddling in our democracy is high, persistent — and ignored by this president. And he is trying to silence officials raising the alarm about it.”
In an interview, Taylor also corroborated one of Murphy’s major allegations: that the White House wanted to fire the former top DHS intelligence official, David Glawe, in September 2018. Word had gotten back to Trump that in a closed-door briefing with lawmakers, Glawe had concurred with the intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow intervened in 2016 to help Trump win, Taylor confirmed.
Elizabeth Neumann, who served as DHS’ assistant secretary for threat prevention and security policy until earlier this year, said she is concerned about the effect the conflicting messages and allegations of politicization could have on DHS’ key election security partners.
“The fusion centers, local and state law enforcement, people who work in critical infrastructure centers, etc. — how do they know that what we are pushing out is true, if there is evidence that there’s been this political tinkering?” she said in an interview. Like Taylor, she is supporting Biden in the 2020 presidential election after souring on Trump.
The Senate Intelligence Committee will pursue the claims made in Murphy’s whistleblower complaint, the panel’s acting chairman Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) confirmed to POLITICO on Thursday. “We’ll treat it as seriously as any other complaint,” Rubio said.
Rubio has been an outlier among the lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who have been accusing each other of manipulating and politicizing intelligence reports. He said oversight of the U.S. intelligence community was in a “crisis” after Ratcliffe’s directive to scale back the in-person election security briefings.
Rubio has largely refused to engage Democratic complaints on the issue, arguing instead that Americans should have faith in the federal government’s ability to blunt the impacts of foreign interference.
“We’re way ahead of where we were in 2016,” he said, “in terms of what we know and our ability to know about it.”