Intelligence officials have warned lawmakers that Russia is interfering in the 2020 election campaign to help President Trump get reelected, three officials familiar with the closed-door briefing said Thursday.
The warning raises questions about the integrity of the presidential campaign and whether Trump’s administration is taking the proper steps to combat the kind of interference that the U.S. saw in 2016.
The officials asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence. They said the briefing last week focused on Russia’s efforts to influence the 2020 election and sow discord in the American electorate.
The warning was first reported by the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Times’ report said the disclosure angered Trump, who complained that Democrats would use the information against him. The report said intelligence officials told lawmakers about the interference in a Feb. 13 closed-door briefing to the House Intelligence Committee.
Over the course of his presidency, Trump has dismissed the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s 2016 election interference as a conspiracy to undermine his victory.
One day after the Feb. 13 briefing to the House Intelligence Committee, Trump berated the then-acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, and he announced this week that Maguire would be replaced by Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist.
U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia interfered in the 2016 election through social media campaigns and stealing and distributing emails from Democratic accounts. They say Russia was trying to boost Trump’s campaign and add chaos to the American political process.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report concluded that Russian interference, much of which sought to aid Trump and hurt Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, was “sweeping and systematic,” but it did not find a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Republican lawmakers who were in last week’s briefing challenged the intelligence director’s chief election official, Shelby Pierson, who delivered the conclusions. They argued that the president has been tough on Russia, one of the officials said.
While Trump has imposed economic sanctions on Russia, he also has spoken warmly of and frequently sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he has withdrawn troops from areas such as Syria where Moscow could fill the vacuum. The president delayed military aid last year to Ukraine, a Russian adversary — a decision that was at the core of his impeachment.
The Times said the president was angry that the House briefing was delivered before the committee’s chairman, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who led the impeachment proceedings.
Trump on Thursday formally appointed Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany and a loyal supporter, to replace Maguire as the acting director of national intelligence. Maguire was required to step down soon under federal law governing acting appointments. The New York Times cited two administration officials as saying the timing, after the intelligence briefing, was coincidental.
Grenell’s background is primarily in politics and media affairs. He lacks the extensive national security and military experience of Maguire, as well as previous holders of the position overseeing the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies.
His appointment does little to heal the president’s fraught relations with the intelligence community, which Trump has derided as part of a “deep state” of entrenched bureaucrats who seek to undermine his agenda. The administration has most notably feuded with the intelligence community over the events surrounding Trump’s impeachment and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Pierson told NPR in an interview that aired last month that the Russians “are already engaging in influence operations relative to candidates going into 2020. But we do not have evidence at this time that our adversaries are directly looking at interfering with vote counts or the vote tallies.”
Pierson, appointed in July 2019 by then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, works with intelligence agencies including the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security to identify anyone seeking to interfere with U.S. elections.
Pierson told NPR that the U.S. doesn’t know exactly what the Russians are planning, but she said it’s not just a Russia problem.
“We’re still also concerned about China, Iran, non-state actors, hacktivists and frankly — certainly for DHS and FBI — even Americans that might be looking to undermine confidence in the elections,” she said.
At an open hearing this month, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray told the House Judiciary Committee that Russia was engaged in “information warfare” heading into the November election, but that law enforcement had not seen efforts to target America’s infrastructure. He said Russia is relying on a covert social media campaign to divide the American public and sow discord.