Even as he recovers from a coronavirus case that left him hospitalized for days, President Donald Trump has intensified a late-campaign effort to undermine widely accepted evidence about Russia’s election interference efforts in 2016.
Trump authorized the declassification and release of documents this week based on intelligence that even his own advisers warn could be Russian disinformation, in what his allies have signaled is aimed at sowing doubt at the intelligence community’s conclusion that the meddling in the 2016 campaign came at the Kremlin’s direction — and was intended to boost his candidacy.
As Trump was still recuperating in the presidential suite at Walter Reed on Monday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said the president had “already tasked me with getting some declassification rolling” on sensitive Russia probe documents.
Some of those documents were released on Tuesday afternoon, including heavily redacted notes from former CIA Director John Brennan following a briefing with then-President Barack Obama. The notes describe intelligence reports that were drawn from Russian operatives, summaries of which Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe declassified last week.
In the legible, unredacted portion of Brennan’s notes, first published by Fox News, he wrote: “We’re getting additional insight into Russian activities from [REDACTED].”
In another section, the notes describe an alleged plan “approved by Hillary Clinton a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security service.”
A second, also heavily redacted document released on Tuesday, a summary of the intelligence the CIA prepared for the FBI, describes “an exchange” between unknown individuals regarding “Hillary Clinton’s approval of a plan concerning U.S. Presidential Candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering U.S. elections as a means of distracting the public from the use of her private email server.”
Some Trump allies say have framed this latest declassification push not as an effort to question Russia’s interference at all but simply to question the “Trump-Russia collusion” narrative that loomed over the White House for much of Trump’s presidency. But Ratcliffe’s release suggested that the Russian intelligence indicated the attribution of 2016 interference to Russia at all was part of a Clinton plot to stir up a scandal against Trump. And many Trump allies have deployed the new evidence to broadly declare that the entire scandal was cooked up by Democrats.
Republicans and Democrats had previously rejected this Russian chatter as likely disinformation intended to deflect from Moscow’s own hacking operation targeting the Democratic National Committee. And Clinton herself was publicly making the case at the time that Trump was inviting Russian interference. Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Clinton, said last week that the documents were “baseless bullshit.”
Four people familiar with the matter said the Russians’ assessment of Clinton was only one part of a larger intelligence report that was billed as an initial examination of Russian cyberattacks targeting the 2016 election, and was not the reason why it was referred to the bureau.
The people all described Ratcliffe as “cherry-picking” portions of the intelligence to try to tarnish Trump’s political enemies.
The effort to discredit the intelligence community’s findings that Russia hacked Democrats to harm Clinton’s candidacy comes almost exactly four years to the day the U.S. intelligence community first assessed that the Russian government had mounted a sweeping effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election with the specific goal of helping Trump win.
It also comes in the middle of an ongoing investigation by U.S. Attorney John Durham, who was tasked by the Justice Department with probing the intelligence community’s findings. Durham is expected to refrain from releasing any conclusions before Election Day to avoid impacting the race, but the recent declassifications by both Ratcliffe and Attorney General William Barr appear to be an effort to fill that void. Trump has taken full advantage of it, weaponizing the releases to boost his re-election campaign.
The new round of declassifications also serves a larger and more vindictive purpose for the president: It is the latest salvo in a years-long effort to cast doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies and senior Obama administration officials, whom the president alleges were unfairly and illegally targeting him and his campaign. Trump’s crusade has extended to questioning assessments by his own administration that Russia is actively backing him in the 2020 election; he went as far as to fire a top intelligence official who, earlier this year, allowed a subordinate to brief Congress about Russia’s interference in the ongoing presidential race.
Trump’s detractors, meanwhile, say he has systematically warped intelligence agencies to promote his preferred narrative and selectively declassified information to undercut key findings about Russia’s intentions and ongoing malign activities.
In media appearances on Sunday and Monday, Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien did not acknowledge the intelligence community’s judgment that the Kremlin is already engaged in efforts to denigrate Joe Biden and support Trump’s reelection, instead touting assurances he had received from top Russian officials forswearing interference in the 2020 election.
“Look, it’s Russia,” O’Brien said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “So as President Reagan said, and as President Trump often says, it’s trust but verify. So we’ll keep an eye on it, but the Russians did commit to not interfere in the elections.”
Ratcliffe’s latest declassifications center around some chatter by Russian intelligence officers that was picked up by the U.S. intelligence community in 2016. The intelligence, Ratcliffe indicated in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) last week, suggested that the Russians believed Clinton authorized a campaign strategy to tie Trump to Russia’s intelligence services and their operation to undermine Democrats four years ago.
Ratcliffe further told Graham, who is investigating the origins of the FBI’s Russia probe, that the intelligence community had referred the Russian chatter to the bureau for further investigation in 2016.
Former acting CIA Director Michael Morell, who endorsed Clinton in 2016, called Ratcliffe’s reclassifications “the most politicized act I’ve ever seen by a senior intel official” and “a blatant attempt to get votes for Donald Trump before the election.
“This is Russian disinformation designed to create the very political chaos that it’s creating. This is Putin playing with us,” he added.
Ratcliffe also acknowledged last week that the information he disclosed might have been “exaggerated” or “fabricated” by Russian intelligence services, raising concerns among even some Republicans about Ratcliffe’s decision to publish the Russian assessment. “It certainly raises questions… about the appropriateness of publicly releasing it,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Ratcliffe later asserted the material was “not Russian disinformation and has not been assessed as such by the intelligence community.” The next day, the intel chief briefed members of the Gang of Eight — the group of congressional leaders privy to the most sensitive intelligence reports — about his letter to Graham that first revealed the unverified Russian intelligence assessment, according to two sources familiar with the briefing.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, worried last week that even the release of Ratcliffe’s summary may have compromised the U.S. intelligence community’s ability to collect information on the Russian intelligence services. “One of the things I want to try to determine is … to what extent was this release cleared by the intelligence services themselves,” he said. “My experience is that information like this would not be released normally because of the potential compromise of sources and methods.”
But Trump was ready to deploy the newly disclosed information during last week’s debate against Biden.
In his comments Monday, Meadows indicated that the material Trump directed for release has been sought by California Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, who over the weekend suggested that the entire U.S. intelligence apparatus should be shut down unless the documents were released.
“We want every damn bit of evidence that every intelligence agency has or it’s maybe time to shut those agencies down,” Nunes said Sunday on Fox News.
The effort has high-profile supporters in the Senate, too: Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, have lauded Ratcliffe for releasing several pieces of information they say support their claims that the FBI targeted Trump and his campaign unfairly. In a brief interview last week, Graham indicated that it didn’t matter whether the declassified material was actually true.
“Can you imagine if they found something alleging wrongdoing by Trump that the FBI never even looked at? People would be going crazy,” Graham said. “So it’s not whether it’s true or not. The question is, did the FBI try to find out whether it was true after they were informed by the intelligence community of their concerns?”
“At some point, maybe the press will wake up and go, maybe we’re looking at the wrong people here,” added Johnson.
Brennan, for his part, has denied accusations by Trump’s allies that he politicized the intelligence community’s findings in January 2017, when it concluded that Moscow interfered with the goal of helping Trump.
“I left it up to the CIA components responsible for Russia, cyber, and counterintelligence to select the relevant experts, some of whom had served in the fusion cell, to write the report,” he wrote in his recently released book.
When two senior managers approached him in late 2016 and said they only had medium confidence in the assessment of Putin’s motives, Brennan suggested they raise their concerns with the analysts who wrote the report and had seen all of the raw intelligence, he recalled. The managers agreed, and never went back to Brennan with further issues, said a person familiar with the matter.