How Team Trump Keeps Twisting the Real Election Threat

·18 min read
Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard and Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast/Photos Getty
Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard and Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast/Photos Getty

On Sept. 23, as the presidential election began its terminal season, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) asked acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf if Russia had an active propaganda campaign against former Vice President Joe Biden. Wolf responded by talking about two other countries.

“I think on everything that I’ve seen, that there are three nation states that we have to be very concerned about. One is Russia, one is China and one is Iran,” Wolf began. Yes, Russia indeed “looks to denigrate” Biden, he acknowledged, and yes, they all respond to the election differently. But “all three nation states” comprise 2020’s foreign election threat.

It was an odd conflation. While China and Iran have certainly pushed their share of political disinformation, only Russia’s propaganda is known to be directly and deeply targeted to the U.S. election in November.

In his testimony, Wolf pointed to a piece of paper—one that, subtextually, U.S. senators are bound to respect. Two months before, William Evanina, the nation’s top counterintelligence official, issued a public assessment treating all three nations as election threats. But his depiction of those threats varied. China was trying to influence “the policy environment” in America, and “will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action.” Iran wants to “undermine U.S. democratic institutions” by circulating “anti-U.S. content” online. Rudimentary maneuvers, in other words, in the realm of information warfare.

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Russia, by contrast, was engaged in an array of efforts—hiring American freelance writers to unknowingly pen and spread Kremlin propaganda, signal-boosting the most unhinged conspiracy theories online. And it had an agent. What’s more, Russia was using a Ukrainian parliamentarian, Andreii Derkach, to generate and circulate misinformation against Biden. Evanina didn’t say it, but Derkach gave those documents to Donald Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani.

Evanina’s equivalences drew criticism from Democrats with access to intelligence. “[T]oday’s statement still treats three actors of differing intent and capability as equal threats to our democratic elections,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the intelligence committee chair, both of whom had criticized an earlier Evanina election-threat portrait. Politico subsequently reported that CIA Director Gina Haspel prevented Russia assessments from reaching the White House and accused CIA Russia analysts of lying about intelligence.

A closer look at the purported intrusion campaigns, from cybersecurity analysts and others, shows a sharp divergence. Microsoft found no indication that Chinese attempts to access accounts belonging to Biden advisers and a Trump administration were successful; but it also found the Chinese targeting academics and think-tankers, consistent with its observed intelligence-collection patterns. Nor did it find any success from Iranian hackers. But Microsoft warned that Russian hackers operate a more sophisticated credential-siphoning enterprise and pledged to continue “proactively hunting” them. Given these divergences, crafting a framework of Russia-China-Iran is reminiscent of how depictions of threats from “weapons of mass destruction” paper over the vast differences between nuclear weapons, biological weapons, and chemical weapons. And if there’s a nation with nukes in this analogy, so far China and Iran haven’t shown them off.

Portraying a “troika” of China, Russia, and Iran election threats suits the intelligence analysts, said the former official, who assign different weight to each of those threats in terms of scale, urgency and objective. But the formulation of them as a troika allows Trump and his allies to “cherry-pick” which threats to emphasize.

“If China is mentioned in a statement like that, the administration can lift that part up while ignoring the Russia part, for example, which may be of much greater consequence. That puts Evanina and the intelligence professionals in a difficult position. You can’t engage in a war of words with your customer set, that doesn’t generally turn out well,” said the former official, who expressed respect for Evanina’s integrity.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) asks questions during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images</div>

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) asks questions during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.

Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images

There may be further classified intelligence to back up the administration’s claim that China poses a greater threat than Russia or Iran. And it’s worth remembering WikiLeaks didn’t release its trove of emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman until October of 2016; perhaps Beijing or Tehran has an October surprise this time around.

But the dispute over the correct characterization of foreign threats to the election obscures the reality that the biggest threat to the election isn’t foreign at all. It’s domestic, according to former intelligence officials and cybersecurity experts, and it seeks to keep Trump in power. He and his allies describe mail-in balloting, increasingly a choice of voters in a pandemic, as a tool for Democrats to steal the election. They’ve gamed out voter-suppression scenarios for Black voters and other presumed Democratic constituencies. Trump supporters are describing the perpetuation of Trump’s presidency as the last stand of a free republic and threaten violence if it doesn’t go their way. Whatever foreign threat imperils the election is relatively minor. But calibrating whose foreign interference is worse is much easier for politicians to confront.

“My sense is that the volume and velocity of material aimed at misleading people with respect to politics in the U.S. right now, generated by Americans themselves, probably vastly exceeds the volume and velocity that emanates from foreign actors,” said a former senior intelligence official.

Over the last several weeks, President Trump and his closest aides, particularly National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, have ramped up a public messaging campaign focused on how China poses a greater threat to the electoral process than any other foreign power, including Russia. “We know the Chinese have taken the most active role,” O’Brien told reporters in September, adding that Beijing had “had the most massive program to influence the United States politically.”

National security officials have for years worked to underscore and fight back against the threats China poses to U.S. interests, particularly its attempts to steal American intellectual property, hack into American networks, and control its own people through American proxies. Dozens and dozens of arrests have been made, including, most recently, that of a New York City cop recruited by Beijing to spy on local Tibetan groups.

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Less has been said about how Beijing may be attempting to interfere in the 2020 election. Last week, the Justice Department announced the indictment of two Chinese hackers working for the Ministry of State Security; Facebook did recently remove accounts associated with a Chinese-linked disinformation network that worked to promote the People’s Republic to overseas audiences, including the American one. But the activity alleged in the indictment has nothing to do with elections, however. And Facebook told reporters at the time of the announcement that there was little engagement around the network’s posts that focused on the United States. And O’Brien himself didn’t have much to add in the way of specifics in his talk with reporters earlier this month. “I am not going to go into all the intelligence,” he said.

Asked how the administration is calculating the risk China poses to the 2020 campaign, spokespersons for the National Security Council would not answer questions on the record. O’Brien recently published a Wall Street Journal op-ed on the topic, in which he pointed to that Microsoft hacking assessment—the one that showed Russia to be the more sophisticated actor. Yet O’Brien declared that, “This behavior, coupled with China’s ever-present influence operations targeting all aspects of U.S. civil society and the economy, represents a serious threat to the integrity of our elections.”

In his public statements, Evanina, the U.S. counterintelligence chief, “has noted that Beijing is engaged in influence efforts, but has not gone so far as to assert that China is attempting election interference,” said Zach Cooper, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on China. “Some senior Trump administration officials, however, have appeared to suggest that both are occurring.”

U.S. officials who attempt to veer from this line have faced the consequences. When FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before Congress this week, he did not speak to any specific threats posed by China but instead detailed how Russia was attempting to use disinformation to “denigrate Biden.”

It didn’t take long for Trump to push back. “But Chris, you don’t see any activity from China, even though it is a FAR greater threat than Russia, Russia, Russia. They will both, plus others, be able to interfere in our 2020 Election with our totally vulnerable Unsolicited (Counterfeit?) Ballot Scam,” Trump tweeted.

The next day, Trump was asked whether he intended to fire Wray. “I did not like his answers yesterday and I’m not sure he liked them either. I’m sure that he probably would agree with me.”

Michael Carpenter, a defense official in the Obama administration and a managing director of the Penn Biden Center, sees a dangerous trend developing. “It is not just that the commander-in-chief doesn’t trust the intelligence that he’s getting or doesn’t act on it. He and close associates of his are trying to both insert partisan cronies into the intelligence community to do their bidding. It’s designed to undermine Biden’s candidacy,” he said.

When Evanina published his August statement on election security, politicians and officials argued about the significance of both China and Russian information operations, Iran kept its own propaganda machine revved up.

It comes as perhaps no surprise that Tehran is continuing to wage disinformation campaigns aimed at dividing the country and attacking Trump, whose administration has over the last four years launched a massive assault on Iran’s economy with punishing sanctions. Iranian networks have long sought to use social media to attack the Trump administration so much so that the State Department created a team to fight back and target those speaking out against the administration’s Iran policy.

In his election security notice, Evanina noted that in the lead-up to the election, Iran “will focus on on-line influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-U.S. content.”

“Tehran’s motivation to conduct such activities is, in part, driven by a perception that President Trump’s reelection would result in a continuation of U.S. pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change,” the statement said.

Microsoft’s analysis revealed how Phosphorus, an Iranian group known for targeting a wide variety of organizations working on geopolitics, economics and human rights, has “continued to attack the personal accounts of people associated with the Donald J. Trump for President campaign.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf testifies during his confirmation hearing on Sept. 23.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Getty Images</div>

Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf testifies during his confirmation hearing on Sept. 23.

Getty Images

In February, Facebook took down half a dozen troll accounts associated with an Iranian effort to target conservatives in the U.S. The trolls spent time in Christian groups like “Only Jesus Can Save” and “Jesus Christ Family,” and posted flyers that appeared to attack former National Security Adviser John Bolton, labeling him a “slave of gold.” The cybersecurity firm FireEye also found accounts that targeted well-known conservatives opposed to Trump and sent them messages inquiring about their thoughts on the 2020 election.

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But what cybersecurity firms, social media companies, and U.S. intelligence have observed about Russian propaganda is an order of magnitude more advanced and targeted to the 2020 election.

Intelligence and national security officials have for months warned of Russian attempts to meddle in the 2020 presidential election. In her December 2019 remarks in front of House impeachment investigators, Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top Russia adviser, sounded the alarm.

“Right now Russia security services and their proxies are geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election,” she said. “The way that the Russians operate is that they will use whatever conduit they can to put out information that is both real and credible but that also masks a great deal of disinformation.”

In the months leading up to Hill’s testimony, intelligence officials drafted reports outlining the extent to which Russia was leaning on proxies, such as Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian parliamentarian, to spread debunked conspiracy theories about nominee Joe Biden, his son Hunter, and their dealings in Ukraine. Members of Congress were warned about such efforts at the end of 2019, as The Daily Beast has reported. At the same time, Derkach worked closely with the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to propagate falsehoods about the Bidens and Ukrainian intervention in the 2016 election.

In an Aug. 7 statement on threats to the 2020 election, Evanina pointed to Derkach as one of the main Russian-linked individuals “using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden.” “Derkach is spreading claims about corruption—including through publicizing leaked phone calls—to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party,” the statement said. Earlier this month the Treasury Department blacklisted Derkach for acting as a Russian “agent” and for meddling in the 2020 election.

The Derkach push is one of many. In recent months, the FBI has twice provided tips about Russian intelligence-linked troll networks on Facebook. The move led the social media company to remove at least two separate clusters of fake accounts, which posed as a fictitious news site and think tank in order to recruit unsuspecting Western freelancers to write and distribute content.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Robert O’Brien, national security adviser, and Jared Kushner speak at the White House on Aug. 13.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Getty Images</div>

Robert O’Brien, national security adviser, and Jared Kushner speak at the White House on Aug. 13.

Getty Images

And on Sept. 10, the Justice Department indicted a 27-year-old employee of the Internet Research Agency, Artem Lifshits, for his role in “a wire fraud conspiracy to further Russian foreign influence efforts and to enrich himself and others.” In August, the State Department also published a detailed guide to Russian-linked propaganda outlets and revealed the outlets’ connections to Russian intelligence services like the GRU and SVR.

Asked if there were Chinese or Iranian election interference networks that the FBI had tipped the social media companies off to, an FBI spokesperson declined comment.

All the emphasis on foreign interference in the presidential election obscures the torrent of disinformation coming not from any overseas troll farm or cut-out, but from the president and his allies, who portray mailed ballots as the tools for a Democratic coup and undermine faith in the voting process.

On Sep. 23, Evanina joined Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe in briefing the Senate Intelligence Committee. Evanina did most of the talking. According to a source familiar with the briefing, the senior intelligence officials told lawmakers that the anticipated uncertainty over the election results in the days following the votes would likely be exploited by foreign disinformation. Evanina didn’t sound any pronounced warning against any particular foreign entity. The following day, the senior Democrat on the committee, Sen. Mark Warner (VA), said the intelligence officials had assessed the period immediately before and after the election “could be uniquely volatile.”

A spokesperson for the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which Evanina helms, would not comment on the briefing. But they pointed to a Sept. 21 announcement from the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency that “raise[d] awareness of the potential threat posed by attempts to spread disinformation regarding the results of the 2020 elections.” Among its warnings about “foreign actors and cybercriminals” was the prospect of trolls defacing official election websites and manufacturing fake ones that could circulate on social media to announce false results.

While the Sept. 23 briefing avoided talk of domestic politics, the source familiar with it noted that foreign propaganda typically mingles with domestically produced and disseminated disinformation. Much of that disinformation is authentically American in origin—and coming specifically from the White House.

President Trump has spent weeks discrediting the mail-in voting that is likely to be a major driver of votes in a pandemic. That voting, judging from early public opinion polls, appears to be disproportionately Democratic, prompting The Atlantic’s Barton Gellman to describe it as a “proxy” for Trump “to distinguish friend from foe.” It’s in keeping with a long American history of voter suppression, particularly against Black people, most recently practiced by the Republican Party. The president, as Gellman noted, gleefully told a Black audience that he benefited from low Black turnout in 2016. The Democrats, Trump said in August, are “using COVID to steal our election.” Most ominously, Trump portrayed all of this as so dire a threat that he refused to rule out relinquishing power peacefully, a five-alarm fire for republican continuity.

But mail-in voter fraud isn’t an appreciable danger to the election. The FBI’s Wray testified to a Senate panel Thursday that the FBI wasn’t seeing “coordinated national voter fraud” in the election at all, “whether it’s by mail or otherwise.” Manipulating mailed ballots would be a “major challenge,” Wray assessed. He pled for “confidence in our voting system and our election infrastructure.” By contrast, Trump said he wants to “make sure that the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be.”

Wray was already on thin ice with the White House. But on Friday, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows attempted to discredit him outright. “With all due respect to Director Wray, he has a hard time finding emails in his own FBI, let alone figuring out whether there’s any kind of voter fraud,” Meadows said. Meadows’ remarks came the morning after the Justice Department announced an investigation into nine allegedly discarded military ballots in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County—something a former U.S. attorney told The Daily Beast smelled like a push by the department to “undermine confidence in the election.”

Behind Trump is an army of amplification. “The radical left are laying the groundwork for stealing this election from my father,” Donald Trump Jr. claims in an ad urging supporters to join an “army” for election security. Notwithstanding Trump’s admonishments on the manufactured danger of voting by mail, robocalls from family surrogates Lara Trump and Kimberly Guilfoyle urge absentee voting and claim, falsely, that Democrats oppose “voting absentee.” They draw a false distinction between absentee balloting and voting by mail, which they falsely claim is “proven to be filled with fraud, abuse and mistakes.” Years of Republican messaging that both the news media and the social media companies are implacably hostile has convinced many on the right that disinformation warnings around right-wing media are cover to suppress conservative viewpoints.

Further out is the untold hundreds of thousands of believers in QAnon. QAnon is a revenge fantasy about a secret Trump war against various adversaries in the political, cultural and security establishments, complete with accusations of child trafficking, secret indictments and looming Guantanamo Bay imprisonments. Trump embraced QAnon followers as “people that love our country” last month, a year after the FBI warned that it and other conspiracy groups will drive “both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.” QAnon has taken on a life of its own, merging with or incorporating other aspects of disinformation, like considering the coronavirus a hoax and mail-in balloting the tools of a coup. In August, Facebook tried to purge large QAnon groups—many of which Facebook’s algorithm directed users toward, according to The New York Times—but they proved resilient.

It took years and sustained criticism before Facebook and the other social-media giants took action against QAnon. They have been even more reluctant to label as misinformation statements discrediting mail-in voting or the coronavirus pushed by Trump and his surrogates. And though Facebook in particular was initially unwilling to concede that it was an election-disinformation vector in 2016, the companies have been notably more willing to purge foreign propaganda.

Their method is functionally a compromise with the truth: they’re taking action against inauthentic identity, like Russians pretending to be Americans, rather than adjudicating the truth of a statement published on their platforms. That can’t work against disinformation Americans authentically spread. Trump has both exploited the companies’ reluctance to policing the truth—a reluctance derived from the companies’ interest in continuing to acquire and exploit data from right-wing users—and threatened them with regulatory and Justice Department investigations once they modestly began disinformation warnings.

Similarly, the intelligence agencies are barred—by legal mandate and by the realities of political pressure—from assessing domestic disinformation.

“Since that domestic space is so off-limits for the intelligence community, there’s just not going to be anything published, declared, or stated by U.S. intel agencies on this. It leaves the American people with no ability to compare scale,” said the former senior intelligence official.

The ex-official said that this time, the Russians didn’t need to invent a narrative about how the election would be stolen. “They’re just piling on that stuff from Trump,” he said. “The beauty from their perspective is they don’t have to pilot that campaign. They’re just a force multiplier.”

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