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Intelligence report contradicts claims by Trump and his team on China election interference

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The report also raises questions about the effort from Senate Republicans to investigate the Bidens and Ukraine, a probe that examined many of the same allegations about the Bidens and Ukraine that the Russian-linked officials were pushing, according to the intelligence community report.

The report, compiled by the US intelligence community and declassified and released by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on Tuesday, assessed that the Russian government meddled in the 2020 election with an influence campaign “denigrating” President Joe Biden and “supporting” Trump. In addition, the report said China did not interfere and “considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the US Presidential election.”

That assessment flies in the face of the public comments from Trump and members of his administration, including former Attorney General William Barr and former national security adviser Robert O’Brien who helped push Trump’s narrative that China was interfering in the election more aggressively than Russia or Iran.

A whistleblower also previously accused top Trump political appointees in the Department of Homeland Security of instructing career officials to “cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the US and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran,” according to the documents obtained by CNN.

That order came from O’Brien, according to the complaint.

The new report rebuts many of the claims Trump and his allies made surrounding foreign interference and the election, where Trump and administration officials repeatedly downplayed the threat of Russian election interference while Trump’s allies such as Rudy Giuliani worked with Russian-linked Ukrainians to try to dig up dirt on Biden.

While the intelligence report didn’t mention Giuliani by name, it includes a detailed accounting of how Russian-linked officials sought to damage Biden’s campaign by providing materials to US officials in an attempt to implicate the Bidens “in allegedly corrupt activities related to Ukraine.”

“The primary effort the IC (intelligence community) uncovered revolved around a narrative — that Russian actors began spreading as early as 2014 — alleging corrupt ties between President Biden, his family, and other US officials and Ukraine,” the report says.

Those same Russian-linked allegations involving the Bidens and Ukraine were taken up in a Senate GOP investigation led by then-Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson. As part of his probe, Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, sought to subpoena and cited a Ukrainian official, Andrii Telizhenko, whom the Treasury Department says was connected to Andriy Derkach, one of the key officials the intelligence community assessed was part of Russia’s election interference efforts.

Johnson and Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, released their report two months before the election criticizing Hunter Biden’s financial dealings in Ukraine and other countries, like China. At the time, Democrats accused Johnson of receiving information that was part of a Russian disinformation campaign, which Johnson and Grassley repeatedly denied.

‘I believe it’s China’

For top Trump administration officials, foreign election interference was all about China.

Asked in September which country had been most assertive in interfering in the election, Barr told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “I believe it’s China.”

During the same interview, Barr also went out of his way to dilute the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia was again actively interfering in a US election.

Senior administration officials on the road to sell Trump's 'law-and-order' campaign message

“I accept that there is some preliminary activity that suggests that they might try again,” he said of Russia. “It wouldn’t surprise me if Russia tries something again of the same general genre before.”

It’s not clear what US intelligence had assessed about China’s potential election interference at the time of Barr’s interview with CNN in September.

Asked this week about his previous comments and the new report, Barr said his response in the CNN interview related to the broader national security threat from China, which the previous and current administrations agree is the most serious. “China has much more formidable capabilities. I was looking at things broadly,” Barr said.

Days after Barr’s interview last year, O’Brien said that he agreed “100%” with Barr’s assertion that China was being more aggressive with its attempts to influence the 2020 election than other malign actors, including Russia, but offered little evidence to back up the claim.

“What the intelligence community has made very clear,” O’Brien told reporters at the time, “first you have China, which has the most massive program to influence the United States politically, you have Iran and you have Russia. These are all three adversary countries that are seeking to disrupt our elections.”

“Some of them prefer Biden; some people say some of them prefer the President,” he had said, notably sounding certain that some had been pushing for Biden but casting some level of doubt on whether some were pushing for Trump.

Trump is playing up China's threat to the 2020 election. But the evidence shows Russia is the real danger

Those comments last year by O’Brien and Barr underscore how Trump and his allies often blurred the line between broader national security concerns — that China was engaged in a long-term strategy to shape US policy — and allegations that China was actively meddling in the election, a distinction that is reaffirmed in the report released Tuesday.

While the report also notes a “minority view” that some intelligence officials have “moderate” confidence that China took “at least some steps” to hurt Trump’s candidacy, it does not offer any evidence to support what the former President and some of his allies were claiming prior to the election.

Intel officials says China is a threat but report says it did not interfere in the election

Intelligence officials have long warned that China poses a grave national security threat and is engaged in a highly sophisticated malign foreign influence campaign against the US, but the report released Tuesday highlights a key distinction between the broader threat posed by Beijing and claims of targeted election interference.

Trump’s former intelligence chief, John Ratcliffe, repeatedly conflated the two issues when asked about Beijing’s election interference activity, pushing claims that aligned more closely with comments made by Barr and O’Brien than assessments from election security officials.

“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,” Ratcliffe claimed during an August interview with Fox News.

Prior to leaving his post, Ratcliffe said he supported the “minority view” on China that was cited in Tuesday’s report, according to a letter that was attached to the classified version sent to Congress and obtained by CNN.

Trump's intelligence chief warns China is the greatest threat to US since WWII

“Similar actions by Russia and China are assessed and communicated to policymakers differently, potentially leading to the false impression that Russia sought to influence the election but China did not,” he wrote, citing a report by the intelligence community Ombudsman which found that analysts were inconsistent in how they defined the terms “influence” and “interference” when referring to China and Russia.

Republicans were also raising concerns about China’s influence efforts targeting Americans prior to the election, but several sources familiar with briefings provided to lawmakers told CNN at the time that intelligence officials had not presented clear evidence showing Beijing is actively interfering in the election or taking specific steps to boost one candidate over the other.

Instead, intelligence and election security officials focused, both privately and publicly, on the holistic threat posed by China, emphasizing that Beijing employs a variety of “malign tactics” that could have implications on the 2020 race.

And while the intelligence community initially assessed that China preferred Trump to lose in November, a finding that Trump often used to justify his politically driven narrative, it ultimately concluded that Beijing did not favor one candidate over the other, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence report released Tuesday.

“China sought stability in its relationship with the United States and did not view either election outcome as advantageous enough for China to risk blowback if caught,” it says. “We assess that Beijing also believes there is a bipartisan consensus against China in the United States that leaves no prospect for a pro-China administration regardless of the election outcome.”

Russian-linked Ukrainians pushed misinformation to Trump allies

Tuesday’s report assesses that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed Russia’s interference campaign. It cites both Konstantin Kilimnik and Andriy Derkach as two Ukrainian-linked officials who were part of the Russian interference efforts. The US intelligence report says that Putin “had purview over the activities” of Derkach.

“Derkach, Kilimnik, and their associates sought to use prominent US persons and media conduits to launder their narratives to US officials and audiences. These Russian proxies met with and provided materials to Trump administration-linked US persons to advocate for formal investigations; hired a US firm to petition US officials; and attempted to make contact with several senior US officials,” the report says.

The report doesn’t name Giuliani, but it references his efforts to dig up dirt on Biden in Ukraine, according to a source familiar with the report. Giuliani’s efforts included work with Derkach and another official, Telizhenko, who played a role in the Senate GOP investigation into the Bidens.

The September report released by Johnson and Grassley detailing the findings of their Biden probe was critical of Hunter Biden’s financial dealings and his work on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm, though it did not accuse Joe Biden of wrongdoing.

As part of that investigation, Johnson sought to subpoena Telizhenko to obtain records about his work with a public affairs firm that contracted with Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company. Johnson ultimately scrapped the subpoena amid resistance from committee members, although Telizhenko is referenced in the GOP report more than 100 times — including a section criticizing the Obama administration for their connections to him.

Grassley spokesman Taylor Foy said their report with Johnson “relied on Obama-era US government records and information from a Democrat-aligned US lobby shop, which employed Telizhenko.” Their report, he said, did not rely on any information from Derkach.

“The FBI and members of the IC indicated last year that there was no reason for the committee’s investigation to be halted, even with knowledge of Telizhenko’s limited involvement,” Foy said.

Telizhenko was not referenced in Tuesday’s intelligence report. But he was sanctioned by the Treasury Department in January under the Trump administration for being “part of a Russia-linked foreign influence network associated with Andrii Derkach.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan report on election interference released last year said that Telizhenko “participated in a documentary film that aired on a US news channel” attacking the Bidens over Ukraine in January 2020 — the same time frame as a documentary cited in the US intelligence report as part of Russia’s election interference.

Democrats charged last year that information from entities with ties to Russia, including Derkach, was provided to Johnson and others as part of a disinformation campaign.

Telizhenko has accused Democrats of a “smear campaign” against him. Johnson has insisted he was not part of any Russian disinformation campaign, accusing Democrats of spreading disinformation by leveling the accusations against him.

“We have neither sought out, relied upon, nor publicly released anything that could even remotely be considered disinformation,” Johnson and Grassley wrote in a letter to Democratic leaders last August.

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