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U.S. intelligence officials told a House committee last week that Russia is attempting to meddle in the 2020 presidential election on behalf of President Donald Trump, according to a New York Times report on Thursday. And they’re reportedly using a “new playbook” to do so.
In 2016, the Russian government created troll armies and impersonated Americans and American groups in 2016, but now, it’s cutting out the middleman and just trying to get Americans to repeat blatantly false information themselves, the intelligence officials reportedly told Congress. The government is also allegedly working from U.S.-based servers rather than ones in Russia, the officials reportedly said, an attempt to circumvent monitoring by U.S. intelligence agencies.
The National Security Agency also apparently told House lawmakers that Russian hackers have “infiltrated” Iran’s cyberwarfare unit, “perhaps with the intent of launching attacks” and making it appear that they come from Iran. And lawmakers were also warned that “foreign powers” could use ransomware attacks to incapacitate or pry with voting systems and registration databases. Last year, there were ransomware attacks on at least 140 state and local government and healthcare providers in the U.S., CNN reported in October.
The briefing also included a revelation that Russia intended to interfere with both the 2020 Democratic primaries and the general election, the Times reported. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report released last year found that the Russian government had also tried to influence the 2016 Democratic primary.
One tactic that hasn’t changed, intelligence officials reportedly said, is that the Russian government is looking to exploit existing controversies and close election results to question the integrity of the American political system.
"The message was, ‘it appears they're favoring one candidate over another, and everybody should be cautious,’" a CBS News source who attended the Hill meeting told the network.
The report wasn’t exactly what the GOP wanted to hear. Trump was reportedly “angered” by the disclosure, believing it would be used against him by the Democrats. He reportedly “berated” acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire — whose aide, Shelby Pierson, reportedly delivered the briefing — for allowing it to happen.
Administration officials sought to downplay Pierson’s report, which, according to the Times, was “the conclusion of multiple intelligence agencies.”
"A more reasonable interpretation of the intelligence is not that they have a preference, it's a step short of that. It's more that they understand the President is someone they can work with, he's a dealmaker,” a “national security official” told CNN. “But not that they prefer him over (Bernie) Sanders or (Pete) Buttigieg or anyone else. So it may have been mischaracterized by Shelby.”
Trump replaced Maguire with U.S. ambassador to Germany and former Fox News contributor Richard Grenell this week. Administration officials said the timing was coincidental, according to the Times.
Republican lawmakers at the meeting also reportedly defended Trump from the assertion that Russia would intervene on his behalf, including Utah Rep. Chris Stewart. “I’d challenge anyone to give me a real-world argument where Putin would rather have President Trump and not Bernie Sanders,” Stewart told the Times.
Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff — the House Intelligence Committee chair, whose presence at the meeting particularly irked Trump, according to the Times — said in a Thursday tweet that “We count on the intelligence community to inform Congress of any threat of foreign interference in our elections.”
“If reports are true and the President is interfering with that, he is again jeopardizing our efforts to stop foreign meddling,” Schiff continued. “Exactly as we warned he would do.”
Cover: Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses during his meeting in the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)