President Trump has spent the past two years either downplaying or expressing doubts about Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. He clearly doesn’t like the idea that he needed Russia to win the presidency.
But while Trump’s efforts have been loud and often counterfactual, those around him have engaged in a subtler brand of trying to diminish Russia’s interference. The statements they make are often strictly true or at least defensible, but they’re also carefully worded to invite the wrong impression. And that impression is always: It wasn’t that big a deal. So many officials have played this game that it’s becoming almost impossible to dismiss it as a coincidence.
Vice President Pence on Thursday became the latest top official to participate in the subterfuge.
In a major speech on China, he claimed that Beijing “wants a different American president” and that the nation “is meddling in America’s democracy.”
Pence even made this claim: “As a senior career member of our intelligence community told me just this week, what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country, and the American people deserve to know it.”
Almost every element of what Pence said echoed what Trump said last week at the United Nations:
“Regrettably we found China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election, coming up in November, against my administration. They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president to ever challenge China on trade, and we are winning on trade — we are winning on every level. We don’t want them to meddle or interfere in our upcoming election.”
One problem: The administration has yet to produce evidence of actual election interference by China — or to even cite credible specific allegations.
Just a couple of months ago, Trump’s top national security advisers did not specify any major efforts at election interference by any country except Russia. A hastily arranged White House conference call after Trump’s U.N. claim last week attempted to substantiate claims about China but instead cited propaganda efforts, such as the advertising supplement bought by Chinese state media in an Iowa newspaper and the tariffs imposed by Beijing.
The anonymous administration official on the call said China was targeting “farmers and workers in states and districts that voted for the president.” The official said the efforts focused on “certain districts and states with tariffs, but go beyond that.” There was no elaboration.
Trump was also later pressed on the claim and suggested there was evidence he could not share and cited the tariffs. “They’ve actually admitted that they’ve gone after farmers,” Trump said.
He was specific in citing a paid insert in the Des Moines Register in a tweet after he spoke at the United Nations.
Except . . . none of that is really election interference, and it’s not anything like what Russia did during the 2016 election.
A few points.
First, it’s entirely possible there is something the Trump administration and the intelligence community has not told us about alleged Chinese election interference. But the lack of specifics and the citing of tariffs sure makes it look as if Trump made a claim that they then had to find facts to try to justify.
Second, it’s true that China’s (and other countries') retaliatory tariffs are politically targeted. The Brookings Institution has done a good job documenting the disproportionate impact on Trump-voting counties. That could plausibly be geared toward affecting the election outcome, but it could also simply be an attempt to prevent Trump from ratcheting up his trade war and imposing more tariffs. It’s also not strictly “election interference.”
And third, it is undoubtedly true that China employs aggressive influence campaigns. The U.S. intelligence community and national security establishment have very real and very justified concerns about China as a geopolitical foe. But, again, this is not the same as saying it is engaging in bona fide illegal election interference.
Pence seems to have taken care to not explicitly accuse China of election interference while leaving the impression that he is confirming Trump’s allegation. He said China “is meddling in America’s democracy” — but notably didn’t say “election.” Pence also leaned upon an anonymous quote to compare China’s efforts with Russia’s interference, without noting that it is not apples-to-apples. And he slipped in a claim that China is trying to unseat Trump — a clear counterpoint to Russia’s favoritism for Trump, which is a big part of the story line that Trump hates.
All of it plays to what Trump wants to hear and downplays Russian interference. See, it isn’t just Russia! See, foreign influence isn’t just helping Trump! See, everyone has focused on Russia when China is worse! Initially, Trump even tried to blame Russia’s 2016 election interference on China. But it’s not election interference that we are talking about, at least not until the administration substantiates Trump’s claim.
Pence’s carefully worded speech and the mistaken impression it will leave harks back to plenty of other top officials. There was Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen saying there was no evidence that Russia’s effort to attack American infrastructure, specifically, favored Trump (which was a bizarre line to draw). She also declined to explicitly blame Russian President Vladimir Putin, although the intel community had already done so.
Pence and other officials, including then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, have argued or suggested that Russia didn’t have an impact on the 2016 election results, which is impossible to prove, illogical and is not a conclusion drawn by the intel community. We even have Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein specifying that indictments against Russians included no allegation of collusion or that the efforts affected the results. He did so even as it was clear as day that the White House would take those lines out of context (which it quickly did).
Whether these officials are directly being pressured to say these things or they view it as the cost of doing business with Trump, it’s misleading, often highly so. They may view their comments as harmless, but they have the very unhelpful effect of diminishing the idea of Russian election interference at a time when we are being warned of a repeat.
If the administration has real evidence of Chinese interference in U.S. elections, it should produce it. Absent that, this looks like the latest effort to muddy the waters.