US intelligence officials told members of Congress that Russia was interfering in the 2020 presidential election in an attempt to get President Trump re-elected, according to reports.
The revelation was first published by The New York Times on February 20, after reporters from the newspaper spoke with five people familiar with the matter.
According to The Washington Post, President Trump wrongly believed officials gave the briefing only to Democrat Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chair and the chief prosecutor in the president’s recent impeachment trial.
In reality, both Democratic and Republican members of the committee attended the meeting. Shelby Pierson, a high ranking intelligence community official and former crisis manager for election security during the 2018 midterm elections, delivered the briefing.
Although Trump was wrong about officials only briefing Schiff, the president was nonetheless reportedly irritated that Schiff was present at the briefing. Trump is reportedly convinced that Democrats will try to use the briefing against him in the election.
CBS reports that a person with knowledge of the briefing said some Republicans “questioned the validity of the information.”
The CBS report adds that the new information wasn’t unexpected, given that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned months ago that “the lights are still flashing red” about Russian election interference.
According to The New York Times, President Trump heavily criticized Joseph Maguire, the outgoing acting Director of National Intelligence, for allowing the meeting to take place.
The president’s criticism was followed on Wednesday with the announcement that Maguire was being replaced as the acting US intelligence chief by Richard Grenell, the Ambassador to Germany, a move that does not require Senate confirmation. Two administration officials called the timing coincidental, according to The New York Times.
Some intelligence officials viewed the briefing as an error, while others believe Pierson could have told the intelligence committee about Russian interference in less blunt terms, or excluded the information entirely to avoid angering Republicans.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted, “We await the election security briefing for Members on March 10."
In a tweet following the publication of The New York Times report, Adam Schiff said that it appeared that Trump’s objection to the briefing was “again jeopardizing our efforts to stop foreign meddling."
According to The New York Times, a Democratic House Intelligence Committee official said the February 13 briefing was an important update about “the integrity of our upcoming elections."
Harsher criticism came from Matthew Miller, a former justice department spokesman, about the appointment of Grenell. Miller said, “the Grenell appointment is exactly what it looks like – a bid to politicize intelligence and hide information from Congress in an election year where Russia is again helping Trump."
Trump pushed back against the reports, accusing Democrats of launching a disinformation campaign. “Another misinformation campaign is being launched by Democrats in Congress saying that Russia prefers me to any of the Do Nothing Democrat candidates who still have been unable to, after two weeks, count their votes in Iowa. Hoax number 7!" the president tweeted.
Trump wasn’t the only one to criticize the briefing. According to The Washington Post, some Republicans on the committee “accused some of the briefers from other agencies of being part of an effort to sabotage Trump’s re-election."
Although intelligence officials say that Russia is continuing its campaign to infiltrate US politics, a US senior administration official said the nation was better placed than in 2016 to defend against foreign interference attempts.
“President Trump has made clear that any efforts or attempts by Russia, or any other nation, to influence or interfere with our elections, or undermine US democracy will not be tolerated," the official said.
The Kremlin denied Russia was interfering in US politics.
“These are more paranoid announcements which, to our regret, will multiply as we get closer to the US election," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
“They have nothing to do with the truth."
The February 13 briefing is not the first time members of the US intelligence community have warned that Russia is trying to meddle in the 2020 election.
Earlier this month FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Judiciary Committee that Russia was engaging in “information warfare" ahead of the presidential election in November. According to Wray, Russia is relying on a covert social media campaign to divide the American public.
Intelligence official Shelby Pierson told NPR that although the intelligence community is aware of Russian interference attempts, the US doesn’t know what the country is planning to do. Pierson also warned that election meddling is not only a Russian 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."
Attorney General Bill Barr, alongside Wray and Joseph Maguire, wrote a piece in USA Today warning Americans that some foreign governments were intent on meddling in US affairs “by attempting to shape public opinion and voter perceptions."
According to the high ranking intelligence officials, “Often, we see foreign adversaries amplifying messages some Americans create and share with each other, in an effort to stoke hostility among us and make us appear more divided than we are.”
According to US intelligence officials, Russia is preparing and experimenting with new ways to interfere in the 2020 election. A new method that officials think Russia will use is to spread disinformation through “authentic" US sources, rather than creating profiles that can be flagged by social media companies as fake accounts.
Instead of impersonating Americans on Facebook, as they did on the platform in 2016, Russian operatives are trying to get Americans to repeat disinformation, bypassing rules that prohibit “inauthentic speech."
A security expert at the social media company told reporters that Russians are also trying to exploit a loophole in Facebook’s ban on foreigners buying political ads by paying Americans to hand over their own personal pages.
Officials say that the Russian hacking groups, including “Fancy Bear," the unit that hacked the Democrats in 2016, are now operating from servers within the United States rather than from abroad, aware that American intelligence agencies are unable to operate within the US.
Russian hackers have also infiltrated Iran’s cyberwarfare unit. Some observers suggest that this is because they intend to launch attacks that appear to be Iranian, instead of Russian.
Likewise, trolls at the Internet Research Agency, a key outfit in Russia’s disinformation campaign in 2016, have stopped using email accounts known to Western intelligence agencies. Instead, the trolls are using encrypted communication tools that are much harder to track.
But despite Russia attempting new ways of meddling in the 2020 election, intelligence officials say the aim is the same as it was in 2016: to promote division and sow doubt about the US democratic process.