FBI Director Christopher Wray confirmed to Congress on Thursday that Russia is engaging in “very active efforts” to influence the 2020 U.S. election and to “denigrate” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, echoing previous warnings by the intelligence community.
The FBI chief testified before the House Homeland Security Committee during its annual hearing on worldwide threats, addressing election interference and domestic terror in the U.S.
“We certainly have seen very active, very active efforts by the Russians to influence our election in 2020 through what I would call more the maligned foreign influence side of things ― social media, use of proxies, state media, online journals, etc. ― in an effort to both sow divisiveness and discord and ... primarily to denigrate Vice President Biden and what the Russians see as kind of an anti-Russian establishment,” he said.
Wray added that the FBI has not yet seen evidence of Russia targeting election infrastructure, or “cybertargeting,” like the agency saw in the 2016 election.
The FBI director warned Congress back in July 2019 that Russia was still intent on trying to interfere in the 2020 presidential election despite U.S. efforts to combat such threats. Trump sidelined then-outgoing national intelligence director Joseph Maguire earlier this year after a member of his team briefed the House that Russia was trying to interfere in the election in Trump’s favor.
The statements echo intelligence officials who in early August presented classified information to Congress and presidential campaigns about Russia’s efforts to influence the 2020 election and American democracy. In an Aug. 7 statement, National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina said that Russia had targeted Biden in a scheme.
“This is consistent with Moscow’s public criticism of him when he was Vice President for his role in the Obama Administration’s policies on Ukraine and its support for the anti-Putin opposition inside Russia,” Evanina wrote. “For example, pro-Russia 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. Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”
Derkach was working with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and right-wing One America News network to push the conspiracy theory that Biden acted improperly when he worked to remove a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor while vice president so he could protect a company his son Hunter Biden was working for.
Trump, who was impeached last year for trying to extort Ukraine’s new president into investigating Biden, has continued to push the smear despite officials in his own administration labeling Derkach’s work as part of an ongoing Russian effort to influence the upcoming election.
Just weeks after Evanina’s statement, newly appointed Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe announced that the intelligence community would halt in-person election security briefings to Congress and instead only provide written reports. The move enraged Democrats who said the hearings allow for questions and transparency to the American public, but Ratcliffe justified the decision by saying it would be easier to avoid leaks and prevent information from being “politicized.”
Earlier this month, a senior Department of Homeland Security aide filed an explosive whistleblower complaint laying out a pattern of behavior by top Trump appointees ― like acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and his deputy Ken Cuccinelli ― to manipulate or block intelligence reports that could undermine the president’s political objects or reflect poorly on the leader who welcomes help from the Kremlin and far-right extremists.
The complaint by Brian Murphy, former head of DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, shed new light on the Trump administration’s efforts to deceive Congress and suppress and distort intelligence about Russian political interference and the associated threat of white supremacy ahead of the election.
Notably, Wolf did not appear Thursday to testify before the congressional committee created to help protect the U.S. from foreign and domestic threats.
“Mr. Wolf may attempt to evade oversight and the Department may try silly stunts to distract from this hearing, but we will not waiver [sic]. The stakes are just too high,” committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in a statement. “Indeed, former Department officials ― the Administration’s own political appointees ― are coming forward to sound the alarm that our Nation’s security is being compromised in favor of the President’s political interests.”
Trump’s former intelligence director Dan Coats, who served from 2017 to 2019, penned an op-ed in The New York Times on Thursday on how the upcoming election will determine whether democracy in the U.S. can survive.
“Our democracy’s enemies, foreign and domestic, want us to concede in advance that our voting systems are faulty or fraudulent; that sinister conspiracies have distorted the political will of the people; that our public discourse has been perverted by the news media and social networks riddled with prejudice, lies and ill will; that judicial institutions, law enforcement and even national security have been twisted, misused and misdirected to create anxiety and conflict, not justice and social peace,” Coats wrote.
“If those are the results of this tumultuous election year, we are lost, no matter which candidate wins. No American, and certainly no American leader, should want such an outcome,” he continued. “Total destruction and sowing salt in the earth of American democracy is a catastrophe well beyond simple defeat and a poison for generations.”
Check out HuffPost’s 2020 Election Hub here.