President Donald Trump suggested on Monday that China is interfering in the 2020 election and attempting to hurt his reelection bid by encouraging race protests, tweeting an article written by a columnist whose claims do not match the US intelligence community’s assessment of Beijing’s efforts so far.
These comments from Trump, and similar claims that have been made by many of his appointees, seek to achieve the same goal: playing up the theory that China is meddling to get Biden elected, while downplaying well-founded reports that Russia is trying to help Trump win again, like it did in 2016.
Trump tweeted a Breitbart article quoting author and columnist Gordon Chang, who said the Chinese Communist Party is “trying to make life very difficult” for the President by “fueling” violent Black Lives Matter protests.
“From what little evidence we have about China’s troll-farm activity, with its bots and with all of its others, they seem to be favoring Vice President Biden, trying trying to make life very difficult for President Trump — as well as fueling the protests, of course,” Chang stated. “I think that Beijing has decided that it’s voting for the Democratic Party candidate.”
It was not immediately clear where Chang’s information comes from but the US government and Silicon Valley have not offered any public assessment about alleged covert Chinese troll farm activity similar to what he described. Chang did not respond to CNN’s request for comment regarding the origins of the information he cited.
The only public comments from these groups about election meddling on social media have focused on pro-Trump activity that is tied to the Kremlin.
Additionally, the article seems to run counter to what US intelligence officials tasked with protecting the 2020 election from foreign interference have said publicly.
Intelligence officials have said they have uncovered evidence that Russia is currently interfering in the election to hurt Biden’s campaign. Separately, some evidence has already emerged about Moscow’s efforts, including Facebook’s announcement last week that a troll group that was part of Russia’s attempt to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election is trying to target Americans again.
But while the intelligence community has assessed that China and Iran prefer Trump to lose in November, officials have offered no indication, to date, that either country is acting on that preference in the same way as Russia, according to public statements issued by the intelligence community and sources familiar with the underlying evidence.
“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,” the top US intelligence official on election security, Bill Evanina, said in an unprecedented public statement issued last month.
Evanina went on to say, “China will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action,” but to date has primarily engaged in overt efforts like ramping up public criticism of the current administration over non-election-related issues, including its coronavirus response and move to close Beijing’s consulate in Houston.
Russia, on the other hand, is using a range of measures primarily to denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia establishment, Evanina wrote in the same statement.
“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,” Evanina said. “Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”
Former CIA officer John Sipher told CNN that there is a clear difference in the way Evanina characterizes the threats posed by China and Russia.
“The simple difference is between covert interference on one side and public preferences. China is using influence, diplomacy and commentary in press and propaganda organs. Russia is using disinformation, fake accounts, bots, covert funding as part of a secret campaign,” he told CNN.
Blurring the line
While Republicans have consistently raised concerns about China’s influence efforts targeting Americans, several sources familiar with briefings provided to lawmakers told CNN that intelligence officials have yet to present clear evidence showing Beijing is actively interfering in the election or taking specific steps to boost one candidate over the other.
Instead, intelligence and election security officials have focused, both privately and publicly, on the holistic threat posed by China, emphasizing that Beijing employs a variety of “malign tactics” that could have implications on the 2020 race.
“China is engaged in a highly sophisticated malign foreign influence campaign, and its methods include bribery, blackmail, and covert deals. Chinese diplomats also use both open, naked economic pressure and seemingly independent middlemen to push China’s preferences on American officials,” FBI Director Chris Wray said in July.
But Trump has repeatedly blurred the line between those broader national security concerns and allegations that China is actively meddling in the election. At the same time, he has all but ignored the intelligence community’s warning about Russia’s ongoing efforts to “denigrate” Biden.
Last week, Trump retweeted a post from his handpicked intelligence chief, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, that linked to a misleading Fox News story with the headline: “China’s anti-Trump election meddling raises new alarm.”
And on Monday, Trump amplified comments that, on the surface, appeared to bolster the narrative that China is interfering to help Biden but came from a source whose views are considered well outside the mainstream and at times have lacked credibility.
Trump officials wary of equating threat from Russia and China
The President has also recently decried any suggestion that Russia poses an equally dangerous threat as China as equivalent to the partisan “witch hunt” against him – a view that has been factored into the messaging of administration officials, who have focused their public comments on Beijing and downplayed Moscow’s actions, sources told CNN.
Monday’s tweet from Trump comes after several of his top national security officials misleadingly suggested there is evidence China is actively interfering in the upcoming US election, according to Sipher, while downplaying what various agencies have characterized as more immediate concerns around Russia’s ongoing efforts to meddle in the 2020 presidential race.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien said Friday that he agrees “100%” with Attorney General William Barr’s assertion that China is being more aggressive with its attempts to influence the 2020 election than other malign actors, including Russia, but offered little evidence to back up the claim.
“What the intelligence community has made very clear,” O’Brien told reporters during a news briefing at the White House on Friday, “first you have China, which has the most massive program to influence the United States politically, you have Iran and you have Russia. These are all three adversary countries that are seeking to disrupt our elections.”
“Some of them prefer Biden; some people say some of them prefer the President,” he said, notably sounding certain that some are pushing for Biden but casting some level of doubt on whether some are pushing for Trump. “My position is it doesn’t matter what these countries want, that any country that attempts to interfere with free and fair elections of the United States has to be stopped.”
In addition to highlighting the threat posed by China, Barr went out of his way to dilute the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia is again actively interfering in a US election, during an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday.
“I accept that there is some preliminary activity that suggests that they might try again,” Barr said of Russia. “It wouldn’t surprise me if Russia tries something again of the same general genre before.”
US intelligence officials and the Senate Intelligence Committee have made bolder assertions warning of the threat Russia poses this year after it hacked the Democrats in 2016 and ran social media influence operations during the 2016 and 2018 elections.
“The threat is ongoing,” Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who chaired much of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian election interference, said in a statement last month after the panel released the findings of its bipartisan probe. “My hope is that this report and the Committee’s work will provide the American people with more insight into the threats facing our nation and the steps necessary to stop them.”
But the Trump campaign and some Republicans responded to the report with a backward-looking critique and insistence there had been “no collusion,” rather than questioning how American politics may still be vulnerable to foreign disinformation and interference in 2020.
That reaction, coupled with recent comments downplaying Russia’s ongoing efforts, have prompted Democrats to accuse the President and his allies of misconstruing what US intelligence shows about the threat of foreign interference ahead of November.
Sipher, whose 28-year career at the CIA included a stint running the agency’s Russia operations, called the comments about China from top Trump officials “pure deflection.”
“If someone says Russia is worse, Republican politicians can point at the larger geopolitical threat from China. True, but not relevant to the issue of election interference. Only one power is trying to subvert the election,” he said.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff went as far as accusing Trump officials like Barr of “lying” when saying the intelligence shows China is actively interfering.
“If you look at what the intelligence director Evanina, who runs the National Counterintelligence Center, what he said in his public written statement, he said that Russia was actively interfering, actively engaging across a range of measures to influence the outcome. China had a preference. And if you look at that, you can tell that Bill Barr is just flat-out lying to the American people, and it’s tragic but it’s as simple as that,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash.
The California Democrat also said he’s confident he’s seen the same intelligence as Barr and other top officials who have said China is interfering more aggressively than Russia.
CNN’s Vivian Salama contributed to this report.