Four House lawmakers are demanding an all-member briefing from the FBI.
Senior Democrats say they have specific intelligence suggesting that an unnamed foreign government is targeting Congress in an influence campaign intended to “launder and amplify disinformation” in advance of the 2020 presidential election.
In a letter to FBI Director Chris Wray made public on Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; and the top Democrats on both Intelligence Committees demanded a counterintelligence briefing on the matter for all members of Congress, citing the “seriousness and specificity of these threats.”
“We are gravely concerned, in particular, 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,” wrote Pelosi, Schumer, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va.
The lawmakers included with the letter “a classified addendum that draws, in large part, from the Executive Branch’s own reporting and analysis,” according to a congressional official.
“The counterintelligence experts at the FBI must provide the full Congress with a defensive counterintelligence briefing on these threats before the August recess,” the official said.
The letter did not specify what country appears to be attempting to interfere in the U.S. election, but both China and Russia are widely understood to be running influence campaigns against the United States.
Intelligence officials in February warned House lawmakers in a closed-door briefing that Russia was interfering in the 2020 election to try to get President Donald Trump reelected, and officials have also testified publicly that Russia is running a similar campaign in 2020 as it did in 2016. The public debate over that effort — both its outcome and the U.S. response to it — has paralyzed U.S. politics since Trump’s election.
Trump has treated the intelligence assessing that Russia meddled in the 2016 election in order to boost his chances of winning as a hoax, seeing it as an attack on the legitimacy of his victory. He has attacked the intelligence community and claimed that the assessment — and the subsequent investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller that examined whether his campaign was complicit in the Russian effort — was engineered by Democrats to damage him politically. He has taken a similar attitude towards reports that Russia is attacking the 2020 election.
“Another misinformation campaign is being launched by Democrats in Congress saying that Russia prefers me to any of the Do Nothing Democrat candidates who still have been unable to, after two weeks, count their votes in Iowa,” Trump tweeted after the New York Times reported the February briefing, referring to delayed results from the Iowa caucuses.
Trump’s sensitivity to the issue has complicated efforts on Capitol Hill to bolster election security, and key Trump administration officials have walked a fine line to avoid his wrath: acknowledging Russian efforts to sow discord, but denying there is any evidence that those efforts are designed to help Trump.
“There’s no briefing that I’ve received, that the president has received, that says that President Putin is doing anything to try and influence the election in favor of President Trump,” National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said after the Times report, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We just haven’t seen that intelligence. If it’s out there, I haven’t seen it.”
Administration officials have sought to draw attention to China’s efforts to manipulate public opinion, and have warned that intelligence officials also see Iran making similar efforts.
The Trump administration contends that it is ready to tackle any threat to the United States’ democratic process.
“The American people should rest assured that whether it’s Chinese interference, Iranian interference, Russian interference, or North Korean interference, any country, or even non-state actors who now have capabilities to try to meddle in our elections, know that this administration takes seriously its responsibility to make sure every American’s vote is counted, counted properly, and that foreign influence is minimized,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview last week with The Hill.
Big tech has also been in the spotlight, after congressional investigators and Mueller’s team exposed the degree to which Russian trolls had leveraged Twitter and Facebook. In 2019, Facebook announced it had taken down roughly 75,000 posts from 50 Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to a Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency.
Also in February, U.S. officials told then-presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that Russia was attempting to help his campaign in an attack on the Democratic primary process.
As the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, has begun receiving intelligence briefings that he said on Friday include warnings about foreign interference.
“We know from before, and I guarantee you I know now because now I get briefings again. The Russians are still engaged, trying to delegitimize our electoral process. Fact,” Biden said. “China and others are engaged as well in activities designed for us to lose confidence in the outcome."