“China is the bigger and longer term threat to U.S. national security,” said an official who has seen the underlying intelligence. “But it does not pose the most acute threat to this election. Russia does.”
When asked in a Fox News interview on Sunday what he could say “about China and what they’re trying to do in this election,” Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe replied that “in an unclassified setting, I can’t get into a whole lot of details, other than to say that China is using a massive and sophisticated influence campaign that dwarfs anything that any other country is doing.”
But a national security official who has seen the underlying intelligence said it shows no evidence of such a concerted campaign aimed at interfering in the election.
“Does Beijing have the capability to wake up tomorrow and say, ‘we really want to mess with the election’ and interfere on a huge scale? Yes,” the official said. “But do they want to do that? And have they been doing that? That’s not borne out by the intelligence.”
Democrats have accused Evanina and Ratcliffe of conflating Moscow’s efforts with Beijing’s in order to appease Trump, who has sought to quash any suggestion that Russia’s interference helped him win in 2016 and frequently portrays himself as tougher on China than Biden. In a statement, an ODNI official said that Ratcliffe on Sunday “provided insights into the holistic national security threat China poses to the United States.”
But Beijing’s traditional malign influence operations — described by FBI Director Chris Wray in July as “subversive, undeclared, criminal, or coercive attempts to sway our government’s policies, distort our country’s public discourse, and undermine confidence in our democratic processes and values” — have not been deployed to boost Biden or sabotage Trump or otherwise wade into the presidential election specifically, officials said, citing the intelligence they’d reviewed.
Several officials pointed to an episode in September 2018, when the government-owned newspaper China Daily took out a 4-page ad in Iowa’s Des Moine Register aimed at the state’s soybean farmers. The overt attack on Trump’s trade war was an example of how China’s efforts are frequently aimed at pushing its policy preferences on Americans rather than covertly sowing chaos, they said. China’s public rhetoric and influence mechanisms—which include leveraging foreign investment to push Beijing’s agenda—have not changed, even if they have intensified leading into 2020.
“The bottom line is they are a significant threat,” the national security official said. “But they are highly unlikely to act on their capabilities to move the needle.”
The ODNI official further said that Ratcliffe’s comments over the weekend were “consistent with the election threat information previously released by Bill Evanina.” But Evanina, who last month released a public statement on foreign interference efforts, did not say that anything about China’s efforts “dwarfing” other countries; indeed, at the time, another ODNI official said Evanina had specifically sought to avoid ranking the threats.
Evanina instead said China views Trump as “unpredictable” and prefers he lose, and cited Beijing’s “public rhetoric” and attempts to shape the policy environment and pressure political figures it views as opposed to its interests. But that preference hasn’t turned into action, officials said, and the intelligence doesn’t suggest Beijing would be happy with a Biden presidency, either.
In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen similarly described China’s malign foreign influence campaign as a way to influence “our year-round policymaking, which certainly has implications for our elections.”
But there is “no evidence to support that China is actively interfering” in the election, said a third person who has seen the underlying material. And while Evanina said China has been “expanding its influence efforts,” he also assessed that China had not yet decided whether to take “aggressive action” one way or the other.
“I have been briefed in person on the threats to our elections, and I’ve reviewed underlying documents to support judgments by the intelligence community,” the third person familiar with the intelligence said. “The evidence reveals Russia as the only country actively trying to help the president and hurt Biden. Sure, other countries have vast intelligence resources. But Russia is aiming and firing theirs at our election.”
Officials who spoke to POLITICO emphasized that Beijing’s activities, while having the potential to affect the election, have largely been overt and aimed at influencing politicians at the state and local level. Russia, meanwhile, has been actively working to denigrate Biden using “a range of measures,” Evanina said in his statement last month.
As evidence, he pointed to what amounts to a covert operation: the use of a Kremlin-linked Ukrainian lawmaker to spread claims about Biden corruption “including through publicizing leaked phone calls.” He also pointed specifically to Kremlin-linked actors “seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.” On Tuesday, Facebook said it removed a network of fake accounts operated by Russia’s Internet Research Agency that aimed to undermine Democratic party candidates, according to The Washington Post.
In July, following a contentious back-and-forth with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during an election security briefing, Evanina acknowledged privately that Russia is again trying to boost Trump’s re-election.
But that kind of cross-examination by House members to intelligence officials won’t be possible moving forward: Citing unauthorized leaks from the briefings, Ratcliffe announced on Saturday that the intelligence community will no longer brief lawmakers in person on election security efforts, and will instead send them written intelligence products to keep them apprised of the threat landscape. The bipartisan Gang of 8 lawmakers authorized to receive the most sensitive intelligence will still receive the in-person briefings.
In a letter to Ratcliffe on Tuesday, Pelosi, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Ca.), and Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-IN), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee subcommittee on defense, said they “will have no choice but to consider the full range of tools available to compel compliance” if ODNI doesn’t resume the in-person briefings.
“The IC confirmed publicly on August 7 that only one country — Russia — is actively undertaking a range of measures’ to interfere in the election,” they wrote. “Your decision, moreover, comes as the Congress itself is the target of a concerted effort by Russia to launder and amplify disinformation, including through a ‘pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian’ who is spreading false claims ‘to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.’”