Washington • Intelligence officials warned House lawmakers last week that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Donald Trump reelected, five people familiar with the matter said, a disclosure to Congress that angered Trump, who complained that Democrats would use it against him.
The day after the Feb. 13 briefing to lawmakers, Trump berated Joseph Maguire, the outgoing acting director of national intelligence, for allowing it to take place, people familiar with the exchange said. Trump was particularly irritated that Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the leader of the impeachment proceedings, was at the briefing.
During the briefing to the House Intelligence Committee, Trump’s allies challenged the conclusions, arguing that he had been tough on Russia and that he had strengthened European security.
Some intelligence officials viewed the briefing as a tactical error, saying the conclusions could have been delivered in a less pointed manner or left out entirely to avoid angering Republicans. The intelligence official who delivered the briefing, Shelby Pierson, is an aide to Maguire and has a reputation for speaking bluntly.
Although intelligence officials have previously told lawmakers that Russia’s interference campaign was continuing, last week’s briefing included what appeared to be new information: that Russia intended to interfere with the 2020 Democratic primaries as well as the general election.
On Wednesday, the president announced that he was replacing Maguire with Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany and an aggressively vocal Trump supporter. And although some current and former officials speculated that the briefing might have played a role in that move, two administration officials said the timing was coincidental. Grenell had been in discussions with the administration about taking on new roles, they said, and Trump had never felt a kinship with Maguire.
Spokeswomen for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and its election security office declined to comment. A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A Democratic House Intelligence Committee official called the Feb. 13 briefing an important update about “the integrity of our upcoming elections” and said that members of both parties attended, including Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the committee.
In a tweet Thursday evening, Schiff said that it appeared that Trump was “again jeopardizing our efforts to stop foreign meddling” with his objections to the briefing.
Trump has long accused the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s 2016 interference as the work of a “deep-state” conspiracy intent on undermining the validity of his election. Intelligence officials feel burned by their experience after the last election; their work became a subject of intense political debate and is now a focus of a Justice Department investigation.
Part of the president’s anger stemmed from the administration’s reluctance to provide delicate information to Schiff. He has been a leading critic of Trump since 2016, doggedly investigating Russian election interference and later leading the impeachment inquiry into the president’s dealings with Ukraine.
Trump complained that Schiff would “weaponize” the intelligence about Russia’s support for him, according to a person familiar with the briefing. And he was angry he was not told about the briefing right away, the person said.
Trump has fixated on Schiff since the impeachment saga began, pummeling him publicly with insults and unfounded accusations of corruption. In October, Trump refused to invite lawmakers from the congressional intelligence committees to a White House briefing on Syria because he did not want Schiff there, according to three people briefed on the matter.
Trump did not erupt at Maguire and instead just asked pointed questions, according to the person. But the message was unmistakable: He was not happy.
Pierson, officials said, was delivering the conclusion of multiple intelligence agencies, not her own opinion. The Washington Post first reported the Oval Office confrontation between Trump and Maguire but not the substance of the disagreement.
The intelligence community issued an assessment in early 2017 that President Vladimir Putin personally ordered a campaign of influence in the previous year’s election and developed “a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” But Republicans have long argued that Moscow’s campaign was intended to sow chaos, not aid Trump specifically.
Some Republicans have accused the intelligence agencies of opposing Trump, but intelligence officials reject those accusations. They fiercely guard their work as nonpartisan, saying it is the only way to ensure its validity.
At the House briefing, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who has been considered for the director’s post, was among the Republicans who challenged the conclusion about Russia’s support for Trump. Stewart insisted that the president had aggressively confronted Moscow, providing anti-tank weapons to Ukraine for its war against Russian-backed separatists and strengthening the NATO alliance with new resources, according to two people briefed on the meeting.
Stewart declined to discuss the briefing but said that Moscow had no reason to support Trump. He pointed to the president’s work to confront Iran, a Russian ally, and encourage European energy independence from Moscow. “I’d challenge anyone to give me a real-world argument where Putin would rather have President Trump and not Bernie Sanders,” Stewart said in an interview, referring to the nominal Democratic primary race front-runner.
Under Putin, Russian intelligence has long sought to stir turmoil among adversaries around the world. The U.S. and key allies Thursday accused Russian military intelligence, the group responsible for much of the 2016 election interference in the U.S., of a cyberattack on neighboring Georgia that took out websites and television broadcasts.
The Russians have been preparing — and experimenting — for the 2020 election, undeterred by American efforts to thwart them but aware that they needed a new playbook of as-yet-undetectable methods, U.S. officials said.
They have made more creative use of Facebook and other social media. Rather than impersonating Americans as they did in 2016, Russian operatives are working to get Americans to repeat disinformation, officials said. That strategy gets around social media companies’ rules that prohibit “inauthentic speech.”
And the Russians are working from servers located in the U.S., rather than abroad, knowing that American intelligence agencies are prohibited from operating inside the country. (The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are allowed to do so with aid from the intelligence agencies.)
Russian hackers have also infiltrated Iran’s cyberwarfare unit, perhaps with the intent of launching attacks that would look as if they were coming from Tehran, the National Security Agency has warned.
Some officials believe that foreign powers, possibly including Russia, could use ransomware attacks, like those that have debilitated some local governments, to damage or interfere with voting systems or registration databases.
Still, much of the Russian aim is similar to its 2016 interference, officials said: Search for issues that stir controversy in the U.S. and use various methods to stoke division.
One of Moscow’s main goals is to undermine confidence in U.S. election systems, intelligence officials have told lawmakers, seeking to sow doubts over close elections and recounts. U.S. officials have said they want to maintain confidence in the country’s voting systems, so confronting those Russian efforts is difficult.
Both Republicans and Democrats asked the intelligence agencies to hand over the underlying material that prompted their conclusion that Russia again is favoring Trump’s election.
Although the intelligence conclusion that Russia is trying to interfere in the 2020 Democratic primaries is new, in the 2019 report of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, there is a reference to Russian desires to help Sanders in his presidential primary campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016. The report quoted internal documents from the Internet Research Agency, a troll factory sponsored by Russian intelligence, in an order to its operatives: “Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest except for Sanders and Trump — we support them.”
How soon the House committee might get that information is not clear. Since the impeachment inquiry, tensions have risen between the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the committee. As officials navigate the disputes, the intelligence agencies have slowed the amount of material they provide to the House, officials said. The agencies are required by law to regularly brief Congress on threats.
While Republicans have long been critical of the Obama administration for not doing enough to track and deter Russian interference in 2016, current and former intelligence officials said the party is at risk of making a similar mistake now. Trump has been reluctant to even hear about election interference, and Republicans dislike discussing it publicly.
The aftermath of last week’s briefing prompted some intelligence officials to voice concerns that the White House will dismantle a key election security effort by Dan Coats, the former director of national intelligence: the establishment of an election interference czar. Pierson has held the post since last summer.
And some current and former intelligence officials expressed fears that Grenell may have been put in place explicitly to slow the pace of information on election interference to Congress. The revelations about Trump’s confrontation with Maguire raised new concerns about Grenell’s appointment, said the Democratic House committee official, who added that the upcoming election could be more vulnerable to foreign interference.
Trump, former officials have said, is typically uninterested in election interference briefings, and Grenell might see it as unwise to emphasize such intelligence with the president.
“The biggest concern I would have is if the intelligence community was not forthcoming and not providing the analysis in the run-up to the next election,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former intelligence official now with the Center for New American Security. “It is really concerning that this is happening in the run-up to an election.”
Grenell’s unbridled loyalty is clearly important to Trump but may not be ideally suited for an intelligence chief making difficult decisions about what to brief to the president and Congress, Kendall-Taylor said.
“Trump is trying to whitewash or rewrite the narrative about Russia’s involvement in the election,” she said. “Grenell’s appointment suggests he is really serious about that.”
The acting deputy to Maguire, Andrew Hallman, will step down Friday, officials said, paving the way for Grenell to put in place his own management team. Hallman was the intelligence office’s principal executive, but since the resignation in August of the previous deputy, Sue Gordon, he has been performing the duties of that post.
Maguire is planning to leave government, according to a U.S. official.