The top US counterintelligence official came under fire from Democratic leaders Friday after he issued a new warning about efforts by Russia, China and Iran to interfere in the upcoming presidential election, as lawmakers claimed his statement did “not go nearly far enough in arming the American people with the knowledge they need about how foreign powers are seeking to influence our political process.”
The statement in question came from Bill Evanina, the top official charged with briefing relevant stakeholders on current election security threats, with just 100 days left in the 2020 presidential campaign. It was intended as an exercise in transparency on an issue that remains a top concern for the intelligence community.
Specifically, Evanina called out Russia, China and Iran for seeking to interfere in the American democratic process, an effort that includes targeting “the private communications of US political campaigns, candidates and other political targets.”
He also outlined a wide variety of other potential threats leading up to November, including foreign adversaries attempting to compromise election infrastructure and malicious cyber actors trying to gain access to state and federal networks.
But while the statement was intended to “share insights with the American public about foreign threats to our election and offer steps to citizens across the country to build resilience and help mitigate these threats,” it was not well received by by top Democrats in Congress.
In a joint statement of their own Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff of California and Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner of Virginia criticized Evanina, saying he did “not go nearly far enough in arming the American people with the knowledge they need about how foreign powers are seeking to influence our political process.”
“A far more concrete and specific statement needs to be made to the American people, consistent with the need to protect sources and methods. We can trust the American people with knowing what to do with the information they receive and making those decisions for themselves. But they cannot do so if they are kept in the dark about what our adversaries are doing, and how they are doing it,” the statement said.
Evanina did note some specifics with regards to what US intelligence officials are seeing from Russia, China and Iran, but also made clear that “our insights and judgments will evolve as the election season progresses.”
“China is expanding its influence efforts to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and counter criticism of China. Beijing recognizes its efforts might affect the presidential race,” he said.
“Russia’s persistent objective is to weaken the United States and diminish our global role. Using a range of efforts, including internet trolls and other proxies, Russia continues to spread disinformation in the United States that is designed to undermine confidence in our democratic process and denigrate what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment’ in America,” Evanina added.
Democrats claimed that Evanina’s warning “gives a false sense of equivalence to the actions of foreign adversaries by listing three countries of unequal intent, motivation and capability together.”
“The statement, moreover, fails to fully delineate the goal, nature, scope and capacity to influence our election, information the American people must have as we go into November. To say without more, for example, that Russia seeks to ‘denigrate what it sees as an anti-Russia “establishment” in America’ is so generic as to be almost meaningless. The statement omits much on a subject of immense importance,” they added.
Later Friday, an ODNI official pushed back on that criticism, telling CNN the statement “in no way downplays the election-related threats from Russia, which are very serious and which we have briefed to Congressional leaders repeatedly.”
“However, other nation-state actors have entered the election threat arena in a big way and they can’t be ignored. This is about the 2020 election, not the 2016 election,” the official said. “To be clear, what we’re explaining in the statement is that there are serious threats to our elections from multiple nations, not just one. There is no particular order or weight by which the threat actors are listed in the statement.”
“This is the beginning of a conversation with the American public. There is more to follow. Over the next 100 days, we will continue to update the American public and other key stakeholders on threats to the election and steps for mitigation,” they added.
Democrats concerned about a repeat of 2016
The statement from Evanina comes as the campaign between former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump is heating up, with Democrats already signaling they are on guard for a repeat of 2016, when Russia interfered in the presidential election to benefit Trump.
Pelosi, Schumer and the top Democrats on the House and Senate Intelligence committees sent FBI Director Chris Wray a letter earlier this month demanding a briefing for all lawmakers on a foreign interference campaign that “seeks to launder and amplify disinformation.”
The lawmakers did not detail specifics in the letter to Wray, which was released publicly on Monday.
But a classified addendum sent to the FBI included concerns about a potential Russian campaign targeting Biden, a source familiar with the situation said, including that information from entities with ties to Russia was being provided to Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who is leading an investigation into Biden, his son Hunter Biden and the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma.
Schiff also warned separately that Russia is once again intent on interfering in the US presidential election.
“The lights were flashing red then. And they are flashing red now,” Schiff said in a speech, adding that Russia will likely attempt to use many of the same tactics it deployed in 2016, as well as “new efforts to influence the outcome this fall.”
“US persons, including elected officials, may be a target of a foreign interference campaign, which seeks to launder or amplify disinformation to affect our public debate, discourse and decision as to who should be the next president of the United States,” he added, describing concerns similar to those raised in the letter to Wray.
Multiple sources with knowledge of the matter told CNN on Friday that House Democrats are discussing providing the full chamber with access to classified information detailing foreign efforts to interfere in the 2020 elections and hurt former Vice President Joe Biden’s chances.
Sources said that if the FBI doesn’t brief Congress, the House Intelligence Committee could vote as soon as next week to allow all House members access to the classified information. A Schiff spokesman declined to comment.
White House refuses to say if Trump raised election interference with Putin
Despite warnings about Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the upcoming election from members of the intelligence community and Congress, the White House continues to dismiss questions about whether Trump has raised the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin directly.
Asked by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on Friday if Trump had brought up Russian election interference during a phone call between the two leaders the day prior, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany refused to answer, saying she “wasn’t on the call,” and claimed the President has “taken more actions for election security than his predecessor.”
When pressed on the issue, she told Collins to “stop filibustering.”
Despite the White House’s blanket insistence that Trump has done more to address election security than President Barack Obama, there is little evidence to suggest that he has taken significant steps to push back against Russia’s continued efforts to interfere in the American democratic process.
Since becoming President, Trump has consistently questioned the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election with the aim of helping him get elected and damaging then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign, including during a news conference alongside Putin.
More than three years into his presidency, Trump has still not publicly condemned Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and there is little indication he has warned Moscow against similar action in 2020 despite being periodically briefed on the matter.
In fact, Trump’s most notable public comments on Russian election interference in recent months came as he lashed out against intelligence officials over reports that they told lawmakers Moscow had again developed a favorable view of his candidacy.
The dispute over what was said during the closed-door briefing with lawmakers in February played out publicly and ultimately helped fuel Trump’s decision to effectively oust the then-acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire.
The President had become irate with Maguire over that briefing, a White House official told CNN at the time. Soon after, Maguire formally resigned after Trump made it clear he would not be nominated for the permanent intelligence chief job, a source familiar with the matter said.
Trump then installed Richard Grenell, a loyalist with no intelligence experience, as acting director. Grenell’s tenure was short yet controversial as he often clashed with Democratic lawmakers over accusations of politicizing intelligence.
In May, Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican, was confirmed as Trump’s top intelligence official on a party-line Senate vote. Trump initially picked Ratcliffe last year to be his spy chief following Ratcliffe’s aggressive questioning of former special counsel Robert Mueller, and Trump’s decision to renominate him this year came after he was a key defender of the President during the House’s impeachment proceedings.
Ratcliffe will now play an essential role in deciding what documents are released publicly in the middle of an election amid expanding congressional investigations that are targeting Obama administration officials and Biden, Trump’s election opponent.
Ratcliffe will also be leading the intelligence community’s response to Russian election meddling in the 2020 election. Ratcliffe has been unequivocal that he believes Russia has interfered in US elections and will continue to do so – but he has not sided with one of the intelligence community’s key findings: that Russia was trying to help Trump in 2016.
CNN’s Hayley Byrd, Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju contributed to this report.