China not only wants to see President Trump lose reelection but is also expanding its foreign influence campaign ahead of the 2020 election, according to a U.S. intelligence community assessment released less than 90 days before Election Day.
A statement by National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director Bill Evanina, released on Friday as a follow-up to his July update, also warned that Russia primarily seeks to harm the election chances of Trump’s Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, and that Iran aims to undermine Trump and divide the country ahead of November.
Evanina said that “many foreign actors have a preference for who wins the election, which they express through a range of overt and private statements,” and “covert influence efforts are rarer.” He said U.S. intelligence agencies “are primarily concerned about the ongoing and potential activity” by China, Russia, and Iran.
“We assess that China prefers that President Trump, whom Beijing sees as unpredictable, does not win reelection,” Evanina said. “China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China.”
The top counterintelligence official continued: “Although China will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action, its public rhetoric over the past few months has grown increasingly critical of the current administration’s COVID-19 response, closure of China’s Houston Consulate, and actions on other issues. For example, it has harshly criticized the administration’s statements and actions on Hong Kong, TikTok, the legal status of the South China Sea, and China’s efforts to dominate the 5G market.”
Evanina said that the Chinese Communist Party “recognizes that all of these efforts” could affect the presidential election.
The Trump administration has ramped up penalties against China in recent months, including sanctions against Chinese Communist Party leaders in Hong Kong on Friday and against Chinese officials complicit in alleged human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region of western China. Trump also signed executive orders this week that could effectively ban Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat from operating in the U.S. within 45 days.
“We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’ This is consistent with Moscow’s public criticism of him when he was vice president for his role in the Obama administration’s policies on Ukraine and its support for the anti-Putin opposition inside Russia,” Evanina said. “For example, pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption — including through publicizing leaked phone calls — to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party. Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”
In July, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, and other Democratic leaders wrote a letter with classified appendices to FBI Director Christoper Wray to say they were “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 response to the letter, which was announced via press release, former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell tweeted, “Gang of Eight (and others impacted) were already briefed. Weeks ago. This request is a CYA.”
The New York Times published a report that same day, July 20, which said, “behind the congressional Democrats’ warning are the efforts of a Ukrainian lawmaker, Andriy Derkach,” who went to a KGB-linked school, was formerly connected to a pro-Russian faction in Ukraine, and in May leaked portions of phone calls between Biden and former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson condemned efforts to connect them to a Russian disinformation operation, arguing that the Democrats’ letter ” grossly mischaracterizes” their Russia and Ukraine investigations. The Republicans also said they have never received any information from Derkach.
The U.S. recently condemned Russian intelligence-linked hackers for attempting to steal coronavirus vaccine research, and the Global Engagement Center released a 77-page report detailing Russian disinformation operations this week.
Finally, Evanina said Iran “seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections.” He said Tehran’s efforts “probably will focus on online influence such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-U.S. content.” He said that the Iranian regime’s motivation “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.”
Iran recently executed a man its government claimed was a spy who helped the U.S. kill Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, whose Quds Force was responsible for the deaths of more than 600 U.S. service members in Iraq. The Trump administration has engaged in a “maximum pressure” campaign against the Iranian regime after withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio and Democratic Vice Chairman Mark Warner released a joint statement noting that Evanina’s assessment “highlights some of the serious and ongoing threats to our election.” Pointing to briefings from Evanina as well as from the FBI and Homeland Security Department, they said “more of the information that was made available in these briefings can, and at the appropriate time should, be shared with the voting public.”
Rubio and Warner said they “encourage political leaders on all sides to refrain from weaponizing intelligence matters for political gain, as this only furthers the divisive aims of our adversaries.”
Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky recently called on Democratic leaders to stop “politicizing intelligence matters” after the Democrats claimed Evanina’s July statement “gives a false sense of equivalence to the actions of foreign adversaries.” The pair defended Evanina, saying the U.S. is far better prepared to combat election meddling now than in 2016, adding, “Our Democrat colleagues know it.”
Robert Mueller’s special counsel report, released in April 2019, said Russians interfered in the 2016 election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” but “did not establish” any criminal collusion between any Russians and anyone in Trump’s orbit.