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Putin targeted people close to Trump in bid to influence 2020 election, U.S. intelligence says

Russia once again sought to influence American democracy in 2020, the U.S. intelligence community has concluded. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials in Moscow sought to influence the 2020 election by spreading misleading information about Joe Biden through prominent individuals, some of whom were close to former president Donald Trump, the U.S. intelligence community said in a report Tuesday.

The report does not identify those individuals by name, but it appears to reference Trump’s onetime personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose repeated meetings with a suspected Russian agent came under scrutiny by U.S. officials.

Both Russia and Iran sought to influence the election, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in its report. But a third major adversary, China, did not try, it says, contradicting the Trump administration’s assertions about Beijing’s activity last year.

Read the report: Foreign Threats to the 2020 U.S. Federal Elections

The declassified document, the first U.S. government report on the matter since November’s election, said that no foreign government attempted to change votes or alter results — supporting U.S. officials’ earlier assessments.

It confirmed what was widely reported last year — that there were no efforts by any foreign government to mount the sort of broad campaign to influence American voters that the Russians attempted in 2016 by hacking and releasing Democratic Party emails, by circulating divisive ads on social media and by persistent efforts to hack election-related websites.

While foreign disinformation and interference was a major concern heading into the 2020 campaign, domestic efforts to disrupt the race — including by Trump and his allies — turned out to be of far greater significance.

“Foreign malign influence is an enduring challenge facing our country,” said Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. “These efforts by U.S. adversaries seek to exacerbate divisions and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions.”

Russia failed to mount interference campaign in 2020

Indeed, Russia undertook a range of activities to influence the outcome, and to a far greater degree than any other country. And it was Putin and the Russian state, the document said, who authorized operations aimed at undercutting Biden’s campaign for president.

A key element of the strategy, according to the report, was to use Ukrainians linked to Russian intelligence to “launder” unsubstantiated allegations against Biden through U.S. media, lawmakers and prominent individuals, an apparent reference to Giuliani.

The intelligence community, for instance, assessed that Putin “had purview over” the activities of Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach, who played a prominent role in advancing the misleading narrative alleging corruption between Biden and Ukraine. Giuliani met with Derkach, whom the United States has sanctioned as an “active” Russian agent, in Ukraine and in the United States in 2019 and 2020 as Giuliani sought to release material that he thought would damage Biden. Last year, Derkach disclosed edited audio snippets of conversations Biden had as vice president with Ukrainian officials in an attempt to cast aspersions on him.

Putin has said Russia does not interfere in U.S. domestic affairs and did not seek to help Trump get elected in 2016. Derkach has denied serving as a foreign agent for any country.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the report as “absolutely unfounded and without proof.”

“We disagree with the conclusions made in this report. Russia did not interfere in the previous election and did not interfere in the election mentioned in this report in 2020. Russia has no relation to any campaigns against any candidates,” he said.

Giuliani’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

As the election neared, Moscow placed increasing emphasis on undermining the candidate it saw as most detrimental to its interests in the region. As vice president, Biden played a leading role in the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy and its support for the anti-Putin opposition in Russia.

Though the Kremlin has long favored Trump, who throughout his tenure expressed support for Putin and distrust of his own intelligence community, it probably saw Trump’s chances for reelection diminishing toward November and thus “took some steps” to prepare for a Biden presidency, such as noting that Biden would be more open to arms-control talks, the report said.

Nonetheless, Moscow will continue election influence efforts to advance its goal of weakening Washington, it said.

“Moscow almost certainly views meddling in US elections as an equitable response to perceived actions by Washington and an opportunity to both undermine US global standing and influence US decision-making,” the report said.

The report’s details about the Kremlin’s use of people close to Trump were known to the intelligence community at the time, but officials may have been reluctant to disclose them in public statements about election security last year for fear of advancing the narrative promoted by Trump of a “deep state” conspiracy to undermine him, and over concerns about harming counterintelligence probes and revealing sources and methods, former officials said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter remains politically sensitive.

U.S. concludes Iran was behind threatening emails sent to Democratic voters

Iran, by contrast, carried out a covert influence campaign to hurt Trump’s reelection chances, the report said.

While Moscow and Tehran preferred different candidates, they both sought to undermine public confidence in the American electoral process and to stir societal divisions.

Last fall, Iran made a striking foray into U.S. election influence. In a highly targeted operation, Iranian hackers sent Democratic voters threatening, spoofed emails purporting to be from the far-right group Proud Boys, demanding that they change their party affiliation and vote to reelect Trump. The hackers also produced a video intending to show alleged voter fraud.

The effort mostly fell flat, but it demonstrated that nations other than Russia were willing to get into the fray. Such covert cyber operations are “low cost, deniable” and do not depend on physical access to the United States, the report noted.

Russia is trying to ‘denigrate’ Biden while China prefers ‘unpredictable’ Trump not be reelected, U.S. intelligence official says

In a departure from previous Biden administration statements, the new report presents a “high confidence” judgment that China “considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome” of the election.

China “sought stability” in its relationship with the United States and did not view either election outcome — a Trump or Biden victory — as being advantageous enough for “China to risk blowback” if caught, it said.

Last year, top Trump administration officials, including then-Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and then-National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien, suggested that China posed a greater election threat than Russia. In January, Ratcliffe charged that career analysts working on the election report failed to capture the full scope of Chinese influence.

Political appointees, career analysts clashed over assessments of Chinese, Russian influence in 2020

The national intelligence officer for cyber, in a minority viewpoint noted in the new report, said that China did take steps to undermine Trump’s reelection chances, assessing that some of Beijing’s influence efforts were intended to at least “indirectly affect” U.S. candidates and voter preferences.

The officer, under whose auspices the report was compiled, felt there were indications that Beijing preferred to see Trump defeated. China increased its efforts over the summer to hurt Trump’s bid, primarily through social media, public statements and media, the report said.

The classified report was produced by the National Intelligence Council, an arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that produces assessments coordinated across the intelligence community. It was required by a 2018 executive order. A public version was mandated by a 2019 law.

Paul Sonne in Washington and Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow contributed to this report.