Russia is targeting Joe Biden in its latest election-meddling effort, US intelligence says

Russia has continued its support for President Donald Trump by actively trying to undermine the candidacy of Joe Biden, the...

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Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times View Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times's articles

WASHINGTON — Russia has continued its support for President Donald Trump by actively trying to undermine the candidacy of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment released Friday that suggested wide-ranging foreign threats to the November election.

It was a striking warning from Trump’s own top intelligence officials, further eroding his repeated attempts to downplay or deny Moscow’s well-documented help for his campaign in the last election.

It also suggests that an effort by Republicans in Congress to investigate Biden for his previous work in Ukraine could become a vehicle for Russian disinformation.

The unclassified “election threat update” said Russia is using a “range of measures” to denigrate Biden, whom the Kremlin blames for supporting pro-democracy groups opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin while Biden served as President Barack Obama’s vice president.

The statement stops short of accusing Russia of directly working to elect Trump, but notes that some “Kremlin-linked actors” are seeking to boost Trump’s reelection campaign on social media and Russian television.

Two other American adversaries are also trying to influence U.S. politics, and not for Trump’s benefit, according to the intelligence assessment.

It said China “prefers” that Trump, which Beijing sees as “unpredictable,” lose his reelection bid, but did not accuse Beijing of direct meddling.

Intelligence officials concluded that Beijing is weighing “the risks and benefits of aggressive action” as its public rhetoric grows increasingly critical of Trump’s actions, including his targeting of social media platforms like TikTok and his harsh criticism of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan.

“Beijing recognizes that all of these efforts might affect the presidential race,” the report noted.

Iran also is seeking to undermine Trump and U.S. democratic institutions, and is expected to spread disinformation on social media and recirculate anti-American content, the assessment warned.

It offered few details, but said Iran is motivated by a belief that Trump’s reelection “would result in a continuation of U.S. pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change.”

“Our election should be our own,” said William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which issued the assessment. “Foreign efforts to influence or interfere with our elections are a direct threat to the fabric of our democracy.”

Evanina, a former FBI official, works under John Ratcliffe, a Trump loyalist and former Republican congressman from Texas who was confirmed as director of national intelligence in May.

Democratic lawmakers, alarmed by disclosures in classified briefings, have pressed Evanina to release more to the public about foreign interference in the 2020 race. Although Friday’s announcement represents the most detailed public assessment so far, some were unsatisfied.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said intelligence officials should release more details to the public, and faulted them for suggesting Russia, China and Iran pose equal threats.

They highlighted “Russia’s malign interference campaign” as significantly more dangerous than the others.

Last summer, Trump asked Ukraine’s president to investigate Biden’s former involvement in anti-corruption prosecutions — a request that led to Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives in December — and some Republicans on Capitol Hill are also probing Biden’s Ukrainian connections.

Some of the allegations against Biden have been disseminated by Andriy Derkach, a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian member of parliament who has met with Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York.

Derkach has publicized leaked phone calls from when Biden was spearheading U.S. diplomatic efforts aimed at pushing democratic reforms and curbing corruption in the Eastern European nation.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who is leading a Republican probe into Biden, has denied receiving any information from Derkach and has rejected criticism that he’s amplifying Russian disinformation.

But Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., recently said that Congress appears to be the target of “a concerted foreign interference campaign, which seeks to launder and amplify disinformation in order to influence congressional activity, public debate and the presidential election in November.”

Biden has faced scrutiny because his son Hunter served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while Biden was vice president. Despite allegations of a conflict of interest, Biden’s critics have not established that he took any improper action.

Russia’s decision to target Biden echoes Moscow’s covert campaign against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee four years ago.

Russian military intelligence hacked and released thousands of Democratic Party emails during the 2016 campaign, and Kremlin-linked operatives spread misinformation on social media aimed at discrediting her candidacy. Trump’s campaign welcomed the Russian assistance but prosecutors working for former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III did not establish a criminal conspiracy.

Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Mark R. Warner, D-Va., the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised officials for Friday’s public warning of foreign meddling in the election.

“Everyone — from the voting public, local officials and members of Congress — needs to be aware of these threats,” they said in a joint statement. “And all of us should endeavor to prevent outside actors from being able to interfere in our elections, influence our politics and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions.”

Trump’s campaign brushed off the warnings about Russia’s role, instead focusing on the threat from China and Iran.

“If anyone should face questions about foreign interference in 2020, it’s Joe Biden’s campaign,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign. “We don’t need or want foreign interference, and President Trump will beat Joe Biden fair and square. The intelligence community’s assessment that both China and Iran are trying to stop President Trump’s reelection is concerning, but clearly because he has held them accountable after years of coddling by politicians like Joe Biden.”

Biden’s campaign slammed Trump in return.

“Donald Trump has publicly and repeatedly invited, emboldened and even tried to coerce foreign interference in American elections,” said Tony Blinken, a senior adviser to Biden’s campaign.

“Joe Biden, on the other hand, has led the fight against foreign interference for years, and has refused to accept any foreign materials intended to help him in this election — something that Donald Trump and his campaign have repeatedly failed to do,” he added.

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