Congressional Democrats — stung by the Obama administration’s soft-pedaled approach to Russian election interference in 2016 — have a plan to prevent a repeat under President Donald Trump: make as much noise as possible, early and often.
For weeks, top Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate have been blaring warnings and demanding briefings and public disclosures from the intelligence community, shrugging off Republican charges that they’re politicizing intelligence.
And Democrats can now point to evidence that their pressure campaign might be working. On Friday, the Trump administration’s counterintelligence chief publicly confirmed that Russia is attempting to harm Joe Biden’s candidacy in 2020. The official, William Evanina, even singled out a pro-Russia Ukrainian, Andrii Derkach, as a key participant in the Kremlin’s new effort.
The statement, which also indicated that Iran and China prefer a Trump loss in November, was hailed by Democrats as vindication of their strategy to lean on the administration for additional disclosures to help educate the public.
“Normally the customer of the intelligence community is the president, the national security apparatus, the secretary of Defense and members of Congress. But every four years, the customer should be the American people,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview.
“They’re the decision-makers on Nov. 3. And they paid for this intelligence and they ought to be able to see it,” added King, who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate.
Whether Democrats succeed in their effort to wrest more information into the public domain could be critical to blunting Moscow’s latest interference effort, they say, as well as shielding Biden from the attacks that dogged Hillary Clinton in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign.
And Democrats aren’t likely to end their push just yet. While some lawmakers acknowledged that the statement was indeed significantly more detailed, they said it still conflated Chinese and Iranian interference with Russia’s more sophisticated efforts. The claims about China and Iran notably lack the degree of specificity Evanina offered about Russia.
“Unfortunately, today’s statement still treats three actors of differing intent and capability as equal threats to our democratic elections,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a joint statement on Friday.
Pelosi has taken the leading role in steering the party’s message on foreign interference in the election, in a shift from her approach in 2016, when Barack Obama sat in the Oval Office and was the nation’s top Democrat.
In increasingly vocal terms, she’s accused the intelligence community of withholding crucial details from the public, including information about the Kremlin’s intentions. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) authored a public letter to the FBI last month demanding an all-Congress briefing on “specific” interference threats aimed at lawmakers.
Their demands come as intelligence officials have acknowledged privately to lawmakers in recent days that Russia is seeking to boost Trump’s reelection prospects and denigrate Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
Despite the criticisms from Pelosi and Schiff, the new disclosure seemed to satisfy Senate Intelligence Vice Chair Mark Warner, who issued a joint statement with Committee Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that generally praised Evanina for the disclosures. King, too, hailed the new releases.
“Calling out Mr. Derkach, who’s a Ukrainian associated with Russia — I think that’s important to know, because now when we see materials with his name on it, we’ll know from whence it came,” King said.
Top of mind for Democrats is avoiding what many see as the mistakes of 2016, when the Obama administration decided to sit on the most explosive details of Russia’s effort to aid Trump in the presidential election. At the time, Obama’s aides defended the decision as an effort to avoid taking steps that Republicans would interpret as an attempt to influence the election. But both in real time and hindsight, top congressional Democrats viewed Obama’s reticence as a significant miscalculation.
And this time, they’re even more fearful that Trump — long vexed by the perception that Russia helped him win the presidency — might seek to squelch evidence of Russian interference in 2020.
“Democrats were disappointed with how the Obama administration dealt with the threat in 2016, and we made that known — they lost valuable time when they could have been informing the public of and inoculating them against Russia’s interference campaign,” a senior House Democratic aide acknowledged.
“But worse than not acting soon enough is downplaying the threat when you know it exists, creating a false equivalence between countries, and seeking to sow confusion for the political benefit of one party,” the aide continued. “This is what the Trump administration is doing.”
Evanina emphasized on Friday that more public details are forthcoming, “for the purpose of better informing Americans so they can play a critical role in safeguarding our election.”
Despite these assurances, rank-and-file senators who have been briefed on recent intelligence have dialed up their warnings in recent days.
“Shocked & appalled—I just left a 90 minute classified briefing on foreign malign threats to our elections,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote in a recent tweet. “From spying to sabotage, Americans need to see & hear these reports.”
“Asking for a friend — what’s the point of spending billions of dollars on intelligence gathering if when you discover a foreign agent trying to manipulate your country’s domestic politics, you keep it hidden and do nothing about it?” added Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
Ahead of Friday’s disclosure from the administration, Democrats’ worries about Russian interference in 2020 had reached such a fever pitch that some were even contemplating the most extreme step possible: publicly disclosing classified intelligence on the House or Senate floor, where senators are shielded from repercussions under the Speech or Debate clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“I’m not going to take anything off the table,” Warner, a member of the Gang of Eight, which receives the highest-level intelligence briefings offered to Congress, said in an interview Thursday. “I have not given up hope that we won’t get that information out. But it is absolutely incumbent that the American people know.”
Murphy agreed that reading the most urgent intelligence on the Senate floor should be a last resort if the administration doesn’t declassify it. But he said he wouldn’t be the one to take that step.
“I frankly don’t know what additional information is in the hands of the Gang of Eight. So that speaks to my inability to set strategy. But what I’ve seen is really important for the American public to know,” Murphy said in an interview. “I don’t have any plans to make classified information public, but in some way shape or form, if the administration isn’t willing to tell the American people the details of this interference, then someone has to.”
The Speech or Debate clause has rarely been used to justify the disclosure of classified information. In 1971, then-Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) read the Pentagon Papers into the congressional record, and was immune from federal charges due to those constitutional protections.
Warner, in justifying his position, referenced countries that make their citizens “better equipped” by learning more about foreign efforts to interfere in their elections, and said the Trump administration should do the same without compromising sensitive intelligence sources and methods.
He also said the U.S. should heed the mistakes of the Obama administration, which came under heavy scrutiny in a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report over its handling of Russia’s meddling.
“The idea that [the Trump administration] wouldn’t learn, and allow knowledge of a Russian disinformation campaign to be carried out, would be unconscionable,” Warner added.
Several lawmakers, though, believe it will not ultimately be necessary to disclose sensitive information on the floor of the Senate. Rubio, Warner’s counterpart atop the Intelligence Committee, said Warner “has a right to do that” but urged caution.
“Ultimately, I suspect that if everyone is patient you will find that the career professionals at the intelligence community will, each week that goes by, release information in a way that doesn’t compromise our sources and our methods, and provides the American people what they want,” Rubio said. “So I think we’ll be in a different place in a couple weeks.”
Intelligence officials began briefing all lawmakers this past week on election security and the threats of foreign interference, as Democrats continued to urge the Trump administration to detail the threats publicly.
But Democrats say these steps are no substitute for informing Americans when details of a specific plot are known, especially with the election less than three months away. Other lawmakers are seeking immediate punitive measures. For example, Rubio and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) have been pushing legislation for months that would sanction Russia or any other country found to be interfering in U.S. elections.
“None of these people are Republicans or Democrats,” Rubio said. “They want to get us to fight against each other, and there are multiple nations now involved in this.”
POLITICO has reported that in addition to their public letter, top House and Senate Democrats urged the FBI to brief Congress on classified details about efforts by Derkach to spread misinformation about Biden to congressional investigators.
The classified addendum to their letter specifically mentions Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R-Wis.) investigation targeting Biden and his son Hunter as a source of their concern, arguing that the GOP-led investigation is employing Russian disinformation to tar a political opponent. Johnson has denied those charges.
Some Democrats, including Warner, have speculated that Evanina and others might be facing internal politically motivated pressure over how much information to reveal about Russia’s intentions, especially given how Trump might react. The president has refused to publicly condemn Russia for its interference in the 2016 campaign, and has questioned the intelligence community’s conclusion that the meddling was intended to help him win.
Still, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expect the intelligence community to disclose more information in the coming weeks. Senators emerging from classified briefings with Evanina and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe earlier this week said the Trump administration was preparing to make more information public, in an apparent nod to Democrats’ concerns.
Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.