Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top House Democrats admonished the country’s top counterintelligence official during a classified election security briefing Friday, accusing him of keeping Americans in the dark about the details of Russia’s continued interference in the 2020 campaign.
Pelosi hinted at the conflict upon emerging from the briefing Friday morning, saying she thought the administration was “withholding” evidence of foreign election meddling.
Multiple sources who attended the briefing told POLITICO that both Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) chastised William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, for issuing a statement last week warning the public of election interference by China, Russia and Iran. Democrats have described the statement as so vague as to be “almost meaningless.”
An official with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Evanina, in his statement last week, was “quite clear that the Intelligence Community will continue to update the American public and other key stakeholders on threats to the election and steps for mitigation.”
“Unlike some, we don’t comment on the content of classified briefings,” the official said.
“Today’s briefing was a highly-classified session in which representatives from half-a-dozen intelligence agencies presented the most sensitive information in the U.S. Government’s hands on foreign threats to the election,” the official said. “Director Evanina, a career intelligence official with more than 30 years of federal service, is incredibly disappointed in the inability of some to protect classified information they are legally obligated to safeguard and instead attempt to use it for partisan gain. Our adversaries only benefit from such partisan divisions and they are all too happy to exploit them to harm our country.”
Aides to Pelosi and Hoyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The sharp exchange at the briefing underscores a fraying relationship between Trump administration intelligence leaders and Capitol Hill Democrats with less than 100 days until the 2020 election. Democrats are wary that Trump — who has previously indicated he’d consider accepting foreign help — might seek to squelch or downplay intelligence suggesting a foreign power was interfering on his behalf. Meanwhile, Trump allies say Democrats are seeking to weaponize classified intelligence to damage Trump in the final months of the campaign.
Evanina ultimately acknowledged that Russia is again trying to boost President Donald Trump’s reelection and denigrate his opponent, the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, sources who attended the briefing said. But that didn’t satisfy Democrats, who urged him to say as much publicly — and to be specific.
Evanina responded by saying that the statement released last week was only the beginning of the process of warning the public about the foreign interference campaigns, and said he expected Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe to reveal more about it during a Worldwide Threats hearing — an annual, public briefing to lawmakers by top intelligence and national security officials about the top threats facing the country.
But whether that hearing will even happen is in doubt. Acting Senate Intelligence Chairman Marco Rubio said this week that “it’s become harder to get to an agreement on a forum that doesn’t turn into a political circus,” citing “heavy politicization” of intelligence on the foreign interference issue.
The threats hearing was supposed to take place in January but was delayed after the intelligence officials asked that it be moved entirely behind closed-doors over fears their assessments might anger Trump, who has long questioned the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Multiple Capitol Hill sources emphasized that it’s rare for Pelosi, a veteran of the House Intelligence Committee and member of the so-called Gang of Eight — the small, bipartisan group of lawmakers given access to high-level intelligence briefings — to express such sharp frustrations in that setting. Members were buzzing about it on the House floor later, they said.
After she left the briefing, Pelosi voiced some of her frustrations to reporters.
“What I’m concerned about is that the American people should be better informed,” she said.
“Leader Schumer and I wrote to them and said, ‘tell the truth to the American people,’ and for some reason they are withholding it,” she added. “That’s what I’m concerned about.”
Asked whether she has any recourse to force the administration to comply, Pelosi said: “We’ll see.” Pelosi told CNN later that “there’s some very specific ways” that the Russians are interfering “that I’m not at liberty divulge, but we think the intelligence community can do, without jeopardizing sources and methods.”
The tensions at Friday’s briefing come amid a public and highly unusual spat between the Democratic and Republican sides of the Gang of Eight over how much information to share with the public about election interference and about Russia’s efforts specifically. With less than 100 days until the election, concerns about Russian interference via Ukrainian actors are coming to a head among Democrats, who see an ongoing effort by the Kremlin to damage Biden and are pushing the Trump administration for more direct and specific public statements about the threat.
Evanina is set to give an election security briefing to the full Senate next week, beginning on Monday. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has already seen some of the intelligence surrounding the foreign election interference efforts, said he believes the administration and the intelligence community “needs to make public far more than they have.”
“There are individuals who are openly inserting themselves into the 2020 election, and if we have confidence about their connection to foreign governments then the American public deserves to know that,” Murphy said. “I don’t know what the point is of collecting all this intelligence on foreign interference if you’re not ever prepared to tell the public what’s going on.”
He added that “if the Russians are sending agents to the U.S. to interfere in the election, I don’t care whether they are working for Republicans or Democrats — there’s no reason for not making that information public.”
Heather Caygle and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.