Foreign Interference in the 2020 Elections
The Russians are at it again, with the cooperation of the Trump administration and its enablers.
William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, has issued an “Election Threat Update for the American Public.”
Ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections, foreign states will continue to use covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States, and undermine the American people’s confidence in our democratic process. They may also seek to compromise our election infrastructure for a range of possible purposes, such as interfering with the voting process, stealing sensitive data, or calling into question the validity of the election results. However, it would be difficult for our adversaries to interfere with or manipulate voting results at scale.
That conclusion has long been my lay understanding. But I would note that “calling into question the validity of the election results” is a far easier task than the others. And that the President of the United States has spent months laying the groundwork for just that.
Many foreign actors have a preference for who wins the election, which they express through a range of overt and private statements; covert influence efforts are rarer. We are primarily concerned about the ongoing and potential activity by China, Russia, and Iran.
Again, this stands to reason. One suspects every country of note, friend and foe alike, has “a preference for who wins the election,” as we do in theirs. But China, Russia, and Iran are not only declared foes in our National Security Strategy (along with North Korea) but they have rather substantial capabilities in the cyber realm.
CHINA - We assess that China prefers that President Trump – whom Beijing sees as unpredictable – does not win reelection. China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China. Although China will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action, its public rhetoric over the past few months has grown increasingly critical of the current Administration’s COVID-19 response, closure of China’s Houston Consulate, and actions on other issues. For example, it has harshly criticized the Administration’s statements and actions on Hong Kong, TikTok, the legal status of the South China Sea, and China’s efforts to dominate the 5G market. Beijing recognizes that all of these efforts might affect the presidential race.
This strikes me as logical. Trump is simultaneously openly hostile to China in a way no American administration has been since Nixon’s 1972 opening but also erratic. Competition with China, and probably posturing our military with them as the pacing threat, would likely continue under a Biden administration, perhaps more effectively. But it’s to China’s advantage to know what they’re dealing with.
RUSSIA - We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia “establishment.” This is consistent with Moscow’s public criticism of him when he was Vice President for his role in the Obama Administration’s policies on Ukraine and its support for the anti-Putin opposition inside Russia. For example, pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption – including through publicizing leaked phone calls – to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party. Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.
Again, this will surprise no one. China is quickly becoming a global power and benefits from a competent, predictable peer competitor. Russia is a regional player with aspirations of expanding in its near abroad. It requires a weak NATO to make that possible and Trump has already succeeded at weakening the alliance in a way Russia and its predecessor never could.
IRAN - We assess that Iran seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections. Iran’s efforts along these lines probably will focus on on-line influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-U.S. content. Tehran’s motivation to conduct such activities is, in part, driven by a perception that President Trump’s reelection would result in a continuation of U.S. pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change.
Biden would be just as hostile to Iran as Trump but is less likely to have a hothead like John Bolten in a position of influence. As with China, then, stability and competence are preferable to the alternative.
This is all rather boilerplate. Presumably, the classified version has more details.
Jonathan Chait‘s New York essay, “U.S. Intelligence Says Republicans Are Working With Russia to Reelect Trump,” thinks what’s unstated is more interesting.
Trump obviously tends to respond with rage at the suggestion that Russia wants him to win, let alone that he is accepting the assistance. So Evanina’s summary delicately surrounds the revelations about Trump and Moscow with superficially balancing material. The report highlights three countries that want to influence the election: Russia, China, and Iran. The report notes that the latter two want Trump to lose, while Russia wants him to win.
This seems intended to let Republicans claim that there is foreign interference on both sides. And it’s true, as far as it goes.
But the comparisons end there. What is China doing to defeat Trump? Its government has “grown increasingly critical of the current Administration’s COVID-19 response, closure of China’s Houston Consulate, and actions on other issues.” And Iran’s efforts “probably will focus on on-line influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-U.S. content.”
In others words, Iran and China are undermining Trump by criticizing him in public remarks, possibly including some mean tweets.
Russia’s efforts to help Trump include all that. In addition, the statement notes, “pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption — including through publicizing leaked phone calls — to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.”
Derkach and his Russian allies despise Biden, who spearheaded the administration’s efforts to reform Ukraine, rein in its oligarchs, and diminish Russian influence. They have attempted to depict Biden’s reform efforts as a corrupt plot to enrich his son Hunter.
Up to that point, I disagree with Chait. Evanina is a career professional, with over three decades in government service, mostly in the law enforcement (FBI) and counterterrrorism (FBI, CIA, and DHS) sphere. His warnings about China and Iran strike me as real, not camouflage.
But Chait makes a strong point elided by Evanina’s report:
Derkach has been working openly with Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. None of this is a secret.
Giuliani told the Washington Post earlier this summer that Derkach “doesn’t seem pro-Russian to me.” In case that ruse was fooling anybody, U.S. intelligence has now officially described Derkach as an organ of Russian political interference.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans on the Homeland Security Committee are holding hearings in an attempt to substantiate this charge — or, more realistically, to insinuate it. They have produced no evidence to advance their charge. The Russians have given Republicans stolen tapes of secret conversations Biden held with Ukrainians during his tenure as vice-president, and pro-Trump media outlets have hyped up the material, but nothing they have is inconsistent with the narrative that mainstream news organizations found. Biden was working to clean up Ukraine.
Senate Republicans tried to be cagey about their activities. After pro-Russian Ukrainians said they’d passed materials on to Republican officials, a Johnson staffer told NBC News in July that it was “‘false’ the committee has received any ‘oppo,’ or opposition research, without responding directly to whether that covers any materials from foreign sources.”
The Washington Post reported that Homeland Security Committee chairman Ron Johnson received secret documents from Ukrainians. And former Giuliani associate Lev Parnas has confessed to putting Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee and perhaps Trump’s most energetic defender on all things Russia, in touch with one of the Ukrainians releasing documents in the United States.
There is hardly any secret to what they’re up to. Johnson says he plans to release his report on Biden in September. It hardly matters if the information Russia gives him actually substantiates his allegations, or even whether it is authentic. The obvious plan is to splash some headlines into news screens in the heat of the campaign that seem to connect Biden to some kind of wrongdoing.
In reality, it is not a scandal about Biden at all. It’s a scandal about Republican cooperation with a Russian propaganda campaign.
What makes Evanina’s statement today so significant is that it makes clear that the passing of information, real or otherwise, from various Ukrainian figures to various Trump allies is part of a Russian-directed scheme to help Trump win. Republicans could tell Russia that Russian-controlled media are free to say anything they want, but Republicans aren’t going to launder their propaganda for them. Instead, they are doing everything in their power to exploit it.
In 2003 and 2004, there was a meme on the pro-Iraq War blogs that Americans and American allies who opposed the war weren’t simply decent folks who disagreed on policy, they were “objectively on the other side.” From the beginning, despite being a reluctant supporter of the war myself, I strongly rejected that critique.
Here, we may well have the reverse situation. There’s longstanding evidence that Trump and his cronies, including Giuliani, are willing to work with Russia and otherwise use nefarious means to discredit their opponents and cling to power. I have no reason to think that Congressional Republicans are in that camp. But, in abetting those efforts or just looking away, they’re objectively on the same side as the Russians.