The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DNI Ratcliffe said Iran aimed to hurt Trump with faked Proud Boy emails. Democrats are skeptical.

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe on Oct. 21 said some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran and Russia. (Video: The Washington Post)
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At a hastily assembled news conference Wednesday, national security officials accused Iran of attempting to interfere in the U.S. election by sending voters fake emails made to look like they had been sent by a far-right, pro-Trump group called the Proud Boys.

Iran had three goals, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said: “to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage President Trump.”

A chorus of Democrats, though, have pushed back on that last claim, noting the threatening emails were sent to registered Democrats in swing states and instructed them to vote for Trump “or we will come after you.”

Given the emails’ targets and the demand to vote for Trump, Democratic leaders questioned why Ratcliffe characterized the interference as an attack on the president’s reelection campaign rather than an attempt to inspire confusion and distrust of the entire 2020 election.

U.S. government concludes Iran was behind threatening emails sent to Democrats

“These election interference operations are clearly not meant to harm President Trump,” the House Homeland Security Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), tweeted late Wednesday. The tweet added:“ Ratcliffe has TOO OFTEN politicized the Intelligence Community to carry water for the President.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) also questioned Ratcliffe’s claim that the emails aimed to damage Trump. Schumer, who received a classified intelligence briefing about the spoofed-email attack, said on MSNBC Wednesday evening he was “surprised” Ratcliffe had suggested the senders were trying to undermine Trump’s campaign.

He said his understanding was that the emails were intended “to undermine the very wellspring of our democracy: elections.”

“From the briefing, I had the strong impression it was much rather to undermine confidence in elections and not aimed at any particular figure,” Schumer added on MSNBC.

The foreign actors might have a motive to undermine the American election, in general, because “discrediting democracy allows Iran to show to its own domestic population, for which it hasn’t been able to deliver, that their Democratic ambitions are not worth pursuing,” Ariane Tabatabai, Middle East fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, told The Washington Post Wednesday. But tensions with Tehran have also escalated during the Trump presidency, she said.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC Wednesday that the emails “appear to be an effort to suppress the Democratic vote, or an effort to inflame the Democratic vote, or simply to sow chaos.”

He also noted a second example of Iranian election interference mentioned by Ratcliffe, a video posted to social media making claims about fraudulent ballots being cast from overseas, appeared to echo a common “Trump talking point.”

“It’s hard to see how that could be hurtful to the president,” Schiff said. “We don’t know if this is just Ratcliffe’s spin, or whether it is the assessment of the analysts.”

Several other Democratic lawmakers took to Twitter Wednesday night to voice their concerns with Ratcliffe’s characterization of the spoofed-email attack.

“Did you even review the emails that @DHSgov officials say Iran sent? Those emails intimidate DEMOCRATS and warn them to vote for Trump,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said in a tweet Wednesday, noting that scaring Democratic voters would be more likely to hurt former vice president Joe Biden rather than Trump. He added: “So is there another email you are referring to, or are you misleading the American people?”

Democrats also took issue with the fact that Ratcliffe said Iran and Russia had obtained “some voter registration information” to “sow chaos and undermine your confidence in American democracy.”

Lieu, whose Southern California district includes a large swath of Los Angeles, noted Wednesday night that “anyone” can access some voter registration data because it is public.

Ratcliffe did not specify Wednesday whether the information foreign actors had used to execute the spoofing attack was legally accessed.

“As NCSC Director Bill Evanina said on August 7th, the IC assesses ‘that Iran seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections,’” Amanda Schoch, Assistant DNI for Strategic Communications said in a statement shared with The Post. “What the DNI made clear last night is that Iran is executing activities to influence the U.S. election. The IC has not changed our assessment on Iran’s intent.”

But even as Ratcliffe painted a concerning picture of election interference, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray offered a word of reassurance at the same news conference.

“We are not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or any criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election,” Wray said. “When we see indications of foreign interference or federal election crimes, we’re going to aggressively investigate and work with our partners to quickly take appropriate action.”

The spoofed-email campaign that officials have attributed to Iran involved threatening messages sent to voters in as many as four states, including three swing states, that appeared to have been sent by the Proud Boys. The group has been a lightning rod for controversy, as its members have brawled with racial justice protesters and antifascists over the summer. Trump recently ratcheted up those tensions when he told Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during the first presidential debate with Biden last month.

Trump’s ‘stand by’ remark puts the Proud Boys in the spotlight

The news conference followed Ratcliffe’s comments on Monday disputing speculation that a New York Post report on emails discovered on a computer that allegedly belonged to Biden’s son Hunter had been part of an attempt by Russia to interfere in the election. “There is no intelligence that supports,” the allegation that the emails were “part of a Russian disinformation campaign,” Ratcliffe said.

The timing of Wednesday’s news led some Democrats to speculate intelligence officials had intentionally politicized the incident when they decided to reveal the Iranian interference just days after beginning an investigation into the spoofed-email attack.

The left-leaning politicians accused Ratcliffe of attempting to shift focus away from the Biden campaign and to distract from allegations of Russian interference intended to help Trump’s chances of reelection.

“I’ve concluded this hastily arranged press conference was a desperate attempt by [Ratcliffe] to change the subject,” Lieu tweeted.