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.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Donald Trump, Intelligence, National Security, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. JKB says:

    The bureaucrats are revolting. Well, doubling down on their revolt. Not unexpected as there’s still a chance some will be hauled before a court to answer for their actions. But the horror of the Constitutional officers holding sway over the bureaucracy? Why…it’s positively revolting to the unelected bureaucrats.

    I think it’s the same with, this is part of my argument that the impeachment and Mueller’s investigation are kind of revolt by the bureaucracy against this kind of political control. Trump, he just wants to achieve his agenda. But the way to do it is to increase political control of the bureaucracy though, because the bureaucracy is his main enemy.

    John Yoo, Uncommon Knowledge interview

    It is surprising they are clinging to the Russia collusion narrative in the face of the Mueller report.

    2
  2. Moosebreath says:

    @JKB:

    “It is surprising they are clinging to the Russia collusion narrative in the face of the Mueller report.”

    Umm, no. It means they have read the actual report and not just the false summary provided by AG Barr. Have you?

    22
  3. Jax says:

    Narrator Voice: JKB did not actually read the Mueller Report.

    20
  4. Mikey says:

    @JKB: The “bureaucrats” (a stupid way to term career intelligence community professionals, but if there’s one thing you Trumpist fools hate, it’s a career professional who doesn’t lick Trump’s boot) aren’t in revolt, they are doing their best to protect America from a foreign attack you and the rest of Trump’s supporters are treasonously aiding.

    John Yoo…no surprise a treason enabler would hold a torture enabler as a reliable source. Trump’s “agenda” is nothing more than elevating Trump, at whatever cost to America, and if enlisting the assistance of a foreign adversary is necessary, well, one must break some eggs, right?

    The Mueller report showed clear evidence of the Trump campaign’s cooperation with the Russian interference, and absolute proof Trump himself obstructed justice multiple times. Stop spreading the bullshit narrative it didn’t.

    25
  5. gVOR08 says:

    Of course the Russians and the Trumpers are doing it again. Why wouldn’t they? They got away with it last time. Reporting that China is making public statements opposed to Trump’s policies and Iran is thinking about doing something is pretty weak tea, but if Russia continues to get away with this, why wouldn’t everybody try, up to actually hacking votes.

    We need to slap Russia around a little and remind Putin who’s a superpower and who isn’t. But more importantly, we need to thoroughly investigate what happened and at least expose American actors. We have so much bad behavior because we never sanction bad behavior. Nobody goes to jail, except Cohen, and nobody is even ostracized. Cheney and W committed war crimes, and both are living honored retirements. Oliver North was the only one significantly sanctioned for the Iran-Contra clown act and he got off on a technicality and went on to a career as a RW hero and nominal head of the NRA, until he screwed that up. Even John Yoo of torture memo fame (@JKB: ) isn’t treated as beyond the pale.

    We need to eventually know why Trump has acted as he has toward Putin and if criminal acts are involved people need to go to jail. And the GOP clowns in congress who are laundering dirt on Biden for the Russians need to get slapped down, at least in the press.

    Cruz, Cotton, Hawley, whoever runs as a GOP in 2024, will pull the same shit unless somebody’s been slapped around enough to give them pause.

    20
  6. EddieInCA says:

    Dr. Joyner, Dr. Taylor –

    I have a question I hope the two of you can answer….

    It breaks my brain that a guy like John Yoo, who created a legal memo which allowed the US to justify torture – against all USA norms, can not only survive as an intellectual, but be rewarded with a plum position as a law professor at Berkeley.

    My question is.. What does it take for someone to be ostracized from polite society these days? Yoo’s actions should have been career ending, and in my mind, he’s a war criminal.

    21
  7. Sleeping Dog says:

    @EddieInCA:

    Academic freedom is a funny thing. John Yoo is the Howard Zinn of the the right.

    7
  8. gVOR08 says:

    @EddieInCA:

    in my mind, he’s a war criminal.

    Well yeah, but you only think that because he, Yoo, was complicit in clear and large scale violations of the Geneva Conventions. His, and the administration’s, argument was that the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply, because reasons. Let’s charge him, take him to the Hague, and find out.

    9
  9. Kathy says:

    Just wait until Thigh Land gets into it.

    5
  10. Gustopher says:

    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.

    I think you’re being too kind to folks like Ron Johnson and Rudy Giuliani. They aren’t just “working with the Russians”, which could be fine (if there was actual information rather than propaganda coming from the Russians), they are working for the Russians to advance Russian interests at the expense of US interests.

    I would like to say that they are unwittingly working for the Russians, but I don’t think the evidence bears that out. They are likely working for the Russians for free, however, because it advances their party.

    In 2008, John McCain ran with a campaign slogan of “Country First” — that worried me because that’s not something you should have to actually say. And since then, the Republicans have been putting Party over Country. I’m not calling McCain’s patriotism into question — he didn’t come up with the slogan by his lonesome — but the staff around him and the rank and file elected officials in the Republican Party… I’ll call their patriotism in question.

    8
  11. @EddieInCA: I don’t have a good answer, save that it is not a new thing.

    2
  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    The thing to remember about @JKB is that he is always lying. He has never yet offered a political comment that was not predicated on a lie.

    Isn’t that right, @JKB?

    5
  13. JohnMcC says:

    When it became plain that the Russian gov’t was cooperating with the Trump campaign I tried to think of some similar event in U.S. history. I couldn’t think of anything that paralleled this despicable business but the XYZ and Citizen Genet affairs came fairly close. The Jefferson-Democrats were the Francophiles and the Adams-Federalists were the governing party back then and made great stacks of hay by accusing the Jeffersonians of conspiring with foreigners. So, not any kind of a match.

    So much of this Administration is unprecedented. I find myself speechless at the shenanigans by Sen Johnson, Mr Giuliani and etc. Just…. speechless. How can Americans do this shit?

    4
  14. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Kathy:

    He’s fantasizing about a post presidency vacation in Patpong.

    1
  15. CSK says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    Sweet Jesus, I’d hate to know what he thinks “Bangkok” means.

    4
  16. Moosebreath says:

    @Kathy:

    “Just wait until Thigh Land gets into it.”

    Trump thinks Thigh Land is next to the part of a woman’s anatomy he can grab with impunity.

    2
  17. de stijl says:

    @EddieInCA:

    John Yoo is a professor at UC Berkeley, but cancel culture is bad.

    Maybe I should knowingly violate the Geneva Conventions so I can fail up.

    Berkeley? Damn. Smh

    2
  18. de stijl says:

    If an ex-President were to flee the country to avoid prosecution to Brunei, Philippines, or let’s say Russia as a hypotheitical, would we still have to provide Secret Service protection to him for the remainder of his pitiful life?

    Does a pre-nup filed in NY apply in Moscow? Melania is going to get half of his shit – she earned it.

  19. CSK says:

    @de stijl:
    Just guessing, but I think Trump would have to hire private bodyguards, or depend on Putin’s largesse to provide them in Russia. Fleeing the arms of justice doesn’t entitle you to protection.

    2
  20. Sleeping Dog says:

    @de stijl:

    Actually, if he sought asylum his secret service detail would be quietly replaced by a CIA spec ops unit. Bang.

    2
  21. JohnMcC says:

    @Moosebreath: Wasn’t that on Broadway long time ago? Anna and the King of Thigh-land?

    2
  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @de stijl: I’m not sure that half of Trump’s shit makes that big a pile. My guess is that he’s leveraged up to the eyeballs.

    It might be that her smartest move would be to get him to agree to let her leave with the Presidential pension. That way at least she’d have an income stream.

    2
  23. Moosebreath says:

    @JohnMcC:

    “Anna and the King of Thigh-land”

    No, that was Watana Siam (say it slowly).

    2
  24. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Well, Melania seems to have renegotiated her pre-nup with Trump before she consented to move into the White House with him, so perhaps she forced him to put a certain amount of money in her name. I know she made him agree to make Barron an equal partner with Ivanka, DonJr, and Eric, so perhaps she was able to gouge some bread out of him for herself. She’d have had Lardass over a barrel at that point; how embarrassing if your wife refuses to live with you in the White House. How would they have spun that one?

    1
  25. de stijl says:

    @CSK:

    I feel for Barron.

    He’s a kid. He asked for none of this, but now his entire future will be defined by his dad.

    Be well and stay strong, little dude.

    1
  26. CSK says:

    @de stijl:
    I feel for the kid, too, but given that Barron looks exactly like his father, he may grow up to replicate Donald emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually, in which case, God help him. He’s going to need it.

    2
  27. de stijl says:

    @JohnMcC:

    “Yo, Semite!” was just a few days ago and already folks are forgetting how fucking awesome that was.

    Thighland was pretty boss, but Yo! Semite is flat out unbeatable.

    That dumb-ass is our President.

  28. de stijl says:

    And Rs have convinced themselves that Trump is going to kick Biden’s ass in the debates.

    Who doesn’t know how to say Yosemite correctly?

    Did Fred forbid him from watching Saturday morning cartoons? Nanny? Looney Tunes was a formative thing for any kid at that time.

    I am baffled at how ignorant Trump is.

    1
  29. CSK says:

    @de stijl:
    I don’t know any adult, particularly one who grew up with Trump’s theoretical advantages, who doesn’t know how to pronounce “Yosemite.”

    2
  30. rachel says:

    @CSK: I dunno…
    Barron seems to have a loving parent, which is one more than his dad had growing up. He may turn out OK eventually.

    I hope so.

    1
  31. CSK says:

    @rachel:
    But Junior, Ivanka, and Eric had Ivana growing up, and it wasn’t enough to defray the toxic influence of Trump. Maybe if Melania does with Barron what Marla Maples did by raising Tiffany 3000 miles away…

    1
  32. Kylopod says:

    @de stijl:

    Who doesn’t know how to say Yosemite correctly?

    Did Fred forbid him from watching Saturday morning cartoons? Nanny? Looney Tunes was a formative thing for any kid at that time.

    First, just because he’s heard the name of Yosemite Sam doesn’t mean he’s ever actually seen the word written down (the cartoon credits don’t count). By all accounts, he doesn’t read. He probably thought it was spelled Yosemitty.

    Second, you have to consider cognitive decline as a factor here. Look at his own bizarre spellings: hamberders, smocking gun, achomlishments, covfefe. That isn’t even standard illiteracy (which usually makes words more phonetic); it looks almost like what someone seriously drunk might write.

    2
  33. CSK says:

    @Kylopod:
    Knowing his deficiencies, you’d think his speech writers would insert pronunciation guides into the text the way they do with tv announcers and anchors.

    1
  34. Kylopod says:

    @CSK:

    Knowing his deficiencies, you’d think his speech writers would insert pronunciation guides into the text the way they do with tv announcers and anchors.

    I bet they already do. They just assumed he couldn’t possibly get “Yosemite” wrong.

  35. CSK says:

    @Kylopod:
    Probably. Didn’t he “correct” it to “Yo-sem-i-night”?

  36. de stijl says:

    I know I said this before, but the Yo, Semite! thing is super god damned funny.

  37. Kylopod says:

    @de stijl: The National Museum of American Jewish History has now made 30K off “Yo, Semite!” T-shirts.

    https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/511173-trumps-mispronunciation-of-yosemite-brings-30k-in-sales-to

    It reminds me of the Sarah Silverman line that Jews and blacks both say Yo, except Jews say it right to left.

    4
  38. de stijl says:

    @Kylopod:

    Oy!

    I do like it when staid and proper institutions drop the pretense and go a bit silly for a day or two.

    I desperately want that shirt.

  39. CSK says:

    @Kylopod:
    That is funny.

  40. Kylopod says:

    @de stijl:

    I do like it when staid and proper institutions drop the pretense and go a bit silly for a day or two.

    One of my favorite examples of that was the time Gary Larson published this cartoon. He received a sort of cease-and-desist letter from the Jane Goodall Institute, calling the cartoon an “atrocity”–then it turned out that Goodall herself loved the cartoon and had no idea about the letter. After the controversy was resolved, the Institute ended up selling T-shirts featuring the cartoon.

    1