The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A striking rebuke to Trump team’s claims about China’s election interference

Then-President Donald Trump walks with Attorney General William P. Barr, left, White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The big new headline in a report from the U.S. intelligence community is that it has concluded that Russia spread misinformation during the 2020 election through prominent individuals, including those close to former president Donald Trump. While not named, the report appears to refer to Rudolph W. Giuliani’s exploits in Ukraine. It wouldn’t be the first time Giuliani has been cast as a conduit for Russian misinformation, though it appears to add confirmation.

But the report also casts the Trump team in a particularly dim light when it comes to another country: China.

Before the election, Trump and his allies repeatedly claimed China’s efforts to allegedly help President Biden were comparable to Russia’s efforts to help Trump. Some even claimed China was the worst offender.

But even as they were making these claims, there was almost always anonymous pushback from the intelligence community. And now that pushback is on the record. The report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concludes that, in fact, “China Did Not Attempt to Influence Presidential Election Outcome.”

The report states that China “did not deploy interference efforts.” And it says that while China considered a broader effort to influence the election — i.e. through less nefarious means — it didn’t do that either.

“China sought stability in its relationship with the United States and did not view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk blowback if caught,” the report says. It adds: “Beijing probably judged risk of interference was not worth the reward.”

That bears very little resemblance to the past claims of top Trump administration officials and allies.

Then-White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien claimed in August that China had launched actual attacks aimed at election infrastructure.

“China, like Russia, like Iran — they’ve engaged in cyberattacks and phishing and that sort of thing with respect to our election infrastructure, with respect to websites,” O’Brien told CBS News. O’Brien said China was “absolutely trying to access secretary of state websites” and that the goal was “to see the president lose.”

He went even further in a White House briefing the next month, saying, “We know the Chinese have taken the most active role” in trying to interfere in the election.

At the same time, Attorney General William P. Barr also cast China as the most aggressive in election interference. He was asked to compare it to the other countries spotlighted for concern by the intel community — Russia and Iran — and responded, “I believe it’s China”:

CNN HOST WOLF BLITZER: China more than Russia right now?
BARR: Yes.
BLITZER: Why do you say that?
BARR: Because I’ve seen the intelligence. That’s what I’ve concluded.

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said much the same thing in an August interview with Fox News.

“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.

Ratcliffe also reportedly claimed even after the election that China had in fact interfered. CBS News’s Catherine Herridge reported in early December that Ratcliffe had “told CBS News that there was foreign election interference by China, Iran, and Russia in November of this year.”

None of that squares with what is now the official conclusion of the office that Ratcliffe led — a conclusion which the office says it has “high confidence” in.

That disconnect has been previewed for a while now, with Ratcliffe in his final days in office accusing career intelligence analysts of slow-walking their conclusions about China’s actions. Ratcliffe wrote a letter to that effect in January, citing a finding from the ODNI’s ombudsman that said, “China analysts appeared hesitant to assess Chinese actions as undue influence or interference.”

The Post’s Ellen Nakashima reported at the time that career officials “feared their reports would be misused by senior political appointees to exaggerate Chinese attempts to influence the election and equate it with what the Russians were doing — in an effort to assuage the president.”

Given that, there will surely be suspicions among Trump allies that the intelligence community is still trying too hard not to find China culpable. But despite Ratcliffe’s pushback, it has now doubled down. And the gulf between its conclusion and the claims of Ratcliffe et. al. is so immense that it’s virtually impossible to chalk it up merely to hesitance to reach firm assessments.

It’s also worth noting that the new intelligence report contains some dissenting points about China’s alleged actions — from the National Intelligence Officer for Cyber. But even that doesn’t accuse China of the kinds of actions that O’Brien, Ratcliffe and others have alleged. It merely concludes “that China took at least some steps to undermine former president Trump’s reelection chances, primarily through social media and official public statements and media.” But it adds that it “agrees that we have no information suggesting China tried to interfere with election processes.”

The effort to accuse China of interference carried obvious political benefits for Trump, as The Post’s Philip Bump aptly summarized when many of these allegations were initially being lodged. It propped up the idea that China is the great political boogeyman trying to unseat him for getting tough on its trade practices — at a time when many Americans soured on China over the coronavirus outbreak. It also assisted in Trump’s long-running effort to play down the idea that Russia’s 2016 interference was unusual and substantial enough to have thrown the election to him — something that so irritated Trump that officials around him avoided feeding him intelligence about Russia’s efforts.

But the claims were rarely substantiated and often went far beyond what the actual intelligence reports at the time showed — leading to legitimate claims of politicization. And now, in the intelligence community’s final word on 2020 election interference, they are rebutted in no uncertain terms.