The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Russia is actively seeking to “denigrate” presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and that some actors linked to the Kremlin are trying to boost President Trump’s candidacy ahead of the 2020 presidential election, according to the country’s top election security official.
In an unprecedented statement outlining the candidate preferences of several foreign actors, National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director Bill Evanina also said China “prefers that President Trump – whom Beijing sees as unpredictable – does not win reelection,” and that Iran may try to “undermine” U.S. democratic institutions and the president, primarily through online and social media content.
“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,” Evanina’s statement said. “We are primarily concerned about the ongoing and potential activity by China, Russia, and Iran.”
Mr. Trump dismissed the intelligence on Russia. When a reporter in New Jersey asked the president about the assessment that Russia wants him to win reelection and China wants him to lose, Mr. Trump said, “The last person that Russia wants to see in office is Donald Trump.” When a reporter pointed out that’s not what intelligence officials said, the president responded, “I don’t care what anybody says.”
His statement, issued less than three months before Election Day, identifies several examples of behavior the intelligence community considered in forming its assessment. Evanina has been the top U.S. counterintelligence official for years and was tapped to lead intelligence-based election security threat briefings in May.
“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,” his statement said. It also cited Beijing’s criticism of the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response, its closure of the consulate in Houston, and recent actions taken to block social media platform TikTok.
Russia, the assessment said, “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate” Biden. “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.” Mr. Trump’s candidacy was being boosted on social media and Russian television by unspecified actors linked to the Kremlin, Evanina’s statement said.
“We assess that Iran seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 election,” the statement continued, adding that Tehran’s efforts “probably will focus on on-line influence.”
“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,” the statement said.
Friday’s update, which follows mounting pressure from Democratic lawmakers on the intelligence community to release more detailed information about election threats, said it represents “the most current, accurate, and objective election threat information the IC has to offer in an unclassified setting at this time.”
But a U.S. official briefed on the intelligence cautioned that the update, while more detailed, suffered from an underlying lack of clarity about what each country was doing vis a vis the U.S. election, and why.
“Only one of the three is actively seeking to interfere to the benefit of one candidate and at the expense of another, and that’s Russia,” the official said. “That doesn’t mean China doesn’t have a preference – but having a preference and doing something about it are not one and the same.”
In a bipartisan statement, Senate Intelligence Committee acting Chairman Marco Rubio and Vice Chairman Mark Warner praised Evanina for providing “additional context” to a statement he issued late last month, 100 days before the election.
“We thank him for providing this additional information to the American people, and we look forward to his continued engagement, along with other members of the Intelligence Community and the Administration, with the public over the next 87 days,” the lawmakers said. They encouraged the intelligence community to continue sharing information publicly and admonished political leaders “on all sides to refrain from weaponizing intelligence matters for political gain.”
National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot said of Friday’s update that the U.S. “will not tolerate foreign interference in our electoral processes and will respond to malicious foreign threats that target our democratic institutions.”
Publicly identifying the candidate preference of a foreign actor ahead of an election is an unprecedented step for the U.S. intelligence community. Although the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the Department of Homeland Security issued a joint statement in October of 2016 stating that the Russian government was behind the hacking and dumping of emails and had been scanning and probing election systems, it was not until two months later, in January of 2017, that the intelligence community said explicitly that Moscow, having “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump” took those and other measures in an effort to damage Secretary Clinton’s election chances and boost then-candidate Trump’s.
That assessment – and subsequent efforts by the intelligence community to identify a preferred candidate in closed briefings – have become politically charged topics. Officials who told members of the House Intelligence Committee in February that Moscow had again demonstrated a preference for President Trump were criticized by Republicans who questioned the validity of the underlying intelligence.
Press reports about that briefing infuriated Mr. Trump, who tweeted that Democrats had launched a “misinformation campaign” about Russia’s preference for his candidacy and removed then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. Mr. Trump has consistently downplayed Russia’s 2016 interference campaign while highlighting Russian president Vladimir Putin’s denials that Moscow had meddled at all.
The president has also criticized the work of U.S. intelligence agencies, whose findings on Russia’s 2016 campaign have been reinforced by a bipartisan Senate Committee and bolstered by the report compiled by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Since 2016, intelligence and other administration officials have warned consistently that Russia and other adversaries were likely to continue engaging in election interference, likely using new and more sophisticated and less detectable tactics.
All three countries identified in 2020 have previously been named as candidates likely to engage in disinformation and influence campaigns – including in the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, an annual report compiled by the intelligence community on top global security challenges.
“We expect our adversaries and strategic competitors to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other’s experiences, suggesting the threat landscape could look very different in 2020 and future elections,” the 2019 assessment said.
Some Democrats have been sharply critical of many of ODNI’s election security disclosures to date. Senior Democrats belonging to the so-called “Gang of 8,” a select group of lawmakers routinely briefed by the executive branch on classified matters, criticized Evanina’s July statement for creating a false equivalence among actors of “unequal intent, motivation and capability,” and that the warning about Russia’s activities was “so generic as to be meaningless.”
Those same lawmakers – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and Warner – previously expressed concerns that Congress was being targeted in a “concerted foreign interference campaign” and called for a defensive counterintelligence briefing from the FBI.
On Friday, Pelosi and Schiff welcomed Evanina’s update, though they maintained it did not go far enough to differentiate among the activities of the three countries.
“[T]oday’s statement still treats three actors of differing intent and capability as equal threats to our democratic elections,” Schiff and Pelosi said. “Members of Congress have now been briefed on the specific threats facing the 2020 election, and we have been clear with the Intelligence Community that the American people must be provided with specific information that would allow voters to appraise for themselves the respective threats posed by these foreign actors, and distinguish these actors’ different and unequal aims, current actions, and capabilities.”
Evanina, along with other senior national security officials, briefed lawmakers in multiple classified sessions late last week and early this week.
His statement on Friday explicitly accused the Ukrainian politician, Derkach, of undermining Biden through weaponized leaks. Derkach is known to have met late last year with President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who has spoken openly about working with Ukrainian contacts to obtain information about Biden.
Sources previously confirmed to CBS News that Democrats’ concerns had stemmed from some of Derkach’s materials being sent to certain lawmakers, including members of a Senate committee, led by Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson, that is currently investigating Biden and his son, Hunter. Politico first reported the details of Democrats’ concerns.
Johnson has denied receiving information from foreign nationals about Biden and, together with Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, accused Democrats of assisting Russian disinformation efforts.
In Friday’s update, Evanina said the intelligence community would continue to provide classified briefings to relevant stakeholders and unclassified updates to the public.
“Aside from sharing information, let me assure you that the IC is also doing everything in its power to combat both cyber and influence efforts targeting our electoral process,” he said. “Our election should be our own.”
— CBS News’ Kathryn Watson contributed to this report.