The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A damning new article reveals how Trump enables Russian election interference

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on screen as he delivers his annual state of the nation address in Moscow in January. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

“The options faced by the intelligence community during Trump’s presidency have been stark: avoid infuriating the president but compromise the agencies’ ostensible independence, or assert that independence and find yourself replaced with a more sycophantic alternative.” So writes Robert Draper in a lengthy and devastating New York Times Magazine article about President Trump’s attempts to politicize intelligence — in particular by preventing the intelligence community from speaking honestly about Russian attacks on our elections.

Nothing better illustrates the intelligence community’s struggles to protect the United States under this administration than the statement about foreign election interference issued on Friday by William Evanina, a career law enforcement official who was chosen by Trump as director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

This was a follow up to an anodyne statement Evanina had issued two weeks earlier warning that “Russia continues to spread disinformation in the U.S. that is designed to undermine confidence in our democratic process and denigrate what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment’ in America.” Democratic members of Congress who were briefed on the top-secret findings begged for intelligence officials to be more forthcoming with the public. Evanina was — but only up to a point.

His Friday statement acknowledged that “Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden” and that “some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.” For example, he noted that “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.” Left unstated is that Derkach has met repeatedly with Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, as part of this effort, and that Sen. Ron Johnson (R.-Wis.) is now launching a politically motivated investigation based on the Russian propaganda against Biden.

Yet even while admitting that Russia is once again mounting a covert campaign to help Trump, Evanina felt compelled to balance this inconvenient reality by also saying what Trump wants to hear: that China and Iran favor Biden’s election. This moral equivalence disguises the difference between Iranian and Chinese opposition to Trump — expressed primarily through public statements and actions — and the covert disinformation campaign waged by Russia with eager assistance from Trump’s aides and enablers. “Between China and Russia, only one of those two is trying to actively influence the outcome of the 2020 election, full stop,” a senior U.S. official told The Post.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who has been briefed on the intelligence findings, suggests that the intelligence community is still concealing the full extent of Russian interference. He wrote in a Post opinion column that “the sophisticated tactics and techniques described in [a State Department] report make Moscow’s past interference and nefarious actions look like child’s play,” and “there is much more” information — "much of it even more chilling” — that has yet to be released.

Even getting this much information out has been a major struggle for the intelligence community. The New York Times Magazine reports that pressure from the White House forced a change in a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) issued last year to remove a finding that Russia wanted to reelect Trump. Instead the NIE was rewritten to read: “Russian leaders probably assess that chances to improve relations with the U.S. will diminish under a different U.S. president.” Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director, tweeted that if this account is accurate, “it is the first example the public knows of the IC tailoring a written product to avoid angering POTUS. That would be the IC politicizing its own work.”

The Times article suggests that Dan Coats was fired as director of national intelligence because he wouldn’t make the changes in the NIE that Trump wanted. His successor, Vice Adm. Joseph Maguire, did so, but his tenure as acting DNI was cut short after one of his subordinates told the House Intelligence Community on Feb. 13 that Russia wanted Trump to win. Maguire has been replaced by one Trump sycophant after another — first acting DNI Richard Grenell and now former Republican representative John Ratcliffe of Texas.

In explaining why he chose the unqualified Ratcliffe, Trump said, “I think we need somebody like that that’s strong and can really rein it in. As you’ve all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok.” Unfortunately, Trump has succeeded in browbeating and intimidating the intelligence community. As one source told Draper: “The problem is that when you’ve been treated the way the intelligence community has, they become afraid of their own shadow.”

We are all suffering from scandal fatigue, but this scandal cannot be ignored: Trump does not want the intelligence community to expose Russian attacks because he is their beneficiary. This is yet another example of how Trump undermines our democracy and subordinates our national security to his personal interests. It is hard to imagine a greater or more dangerous dereliction of duty. If Trump is not held accountable in November, the damage to our institutions may become irreversible.

Columnist Max Boot walks through the evidence he says shows Russian meddling pushed President Trump over the finish line in 2016. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Sen. Richard Blumenthal: The threat to U.S. elections is real, and frightening. The public has a right to know.

Paul Waldman: Republicans are still trying to frame Joe Biden with Ukraine

Jennifer Rubin: Sally Yates blows up Republican conspiracies and falsehoods

Michael McFaul: Why Trump’s complacency about Putin is a problem — whatever his motives

Robert C. O’Brien: President Trump is committed to defending the U.S., and Russia knows it