WASHINGTON, D.C. – Two classified briefings that lawmakers received from intelligence agencies Tuesday did little to bridge the rift between President Donald Trump's administration and Democrats who have concerns about Russian interference in the 2020 elections.
Democrats leaving the meeting said they had more questions and had heard conflicting evidence. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said after the briefing that he had “renewed concerns about the independence of the intelligence community, and their willingness to continue speaking truth to power.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said she believed there was conflicting information coming to Congress from the administration. “I just don't have trust that we're getting accurate information,” she said.
Democrats have expressed concerns about the independence of the intelligence community after Trump replaced the former acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, with a loyalist who had less intelligence experience. That new acting director, Richard Grenell, did not attend Tuesday's briefing.
Though the nation's intelligence agencies have repeatedly said Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump, the president has dismissed that as a "hoax." On Tuesday, he tweeted that “there is another Russia, Russia, Russia meeting today.”
Still, intelligence officials told lawmakers last month that Russia is still trying to to sow discord in the American electorate and that the country has a preference for Trump, according to officials familiar with that briefing. Trump later berated Maguire and replaced him.
Two people familiar with Tuesday's briefing said the message was worded differently, with officials indicating they didn't have “direct” evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself favored Trump. Democrats pushed back in the meeting, said the people, who requested anonymity to discuss the closed-door briefing.
Republicans leaving the House and Senate meetings said the administration officials made clear that Russia was still interfering in U.S. elections.
According to Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., the officials said Russia and other countries were busily trying to rile up Americans. “You name the divisive issue — racial tensions, gun rights, pro-life, pro-choice, and what they’ve talked about is trying to stir sow and discord on both sides of every issue.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said: “We are way ahead of where we were in 2016 because we're more aware and because we've taken more steps. ... The part that's much harder to control is what gets out there in the public domain that people are willing to believe and how that stirs dissension and divisions in the society and ultimately paralyzes the ability to take action.”
In addition to the findings by the major intelligence agencies, a nearly two-year investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller concluded there was a sophisticated, Kremlin-led operation to sow division in the U.S. and upend the 2016 election by using cyberattacks and social media as weapons.
Government officials have said Russia also scanned voting systems around the country, though there is no evidence that votes were changed.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running in the Democratic primary to challenge Trump, said last month that he was also briefed by U.S. officials about Russian efforts to boost his candidacy. The Russian efforts are aimed at undermining public confidence in the integrity of U.S. elections and stirring general chaos in American politics, intelligence experts say.
Intelligence officials from seven agencies — including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and multiple intelligence agencies — attended the briefing.
Trump has nominated Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe as a permanent replacement for Grenell, but it’s unclear if he will have the needed support in the Senate for confirmation. Trump also nominated Ratcliffe for the post last year, then withdrew the nomination after Democrats questioned his experience and news reports challenged the accuracy of Ratcliffe’s resume.