WASHINGTON – Democratic leaders in Congress are dialing up pressure on President Donald Trump's administration over foreign election interference, saying it's time for officials to make a “concrete and specific statement” to inform voters ahead of the 2020 contest.
The Democrats did not detail exactly what they want the administration to say. But the call comes as the nation's intelligence agencies, congressional intelligence committees and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden have all warned of renewed interference this year. Trump himself has been loath to discuss the subject or acknowledge that Russia tried to sow discord in the 2016 contest by hacking Democratic accounts and pushing out inflammatory content on social media.
The Democrats' letter Friday was in response to a statement earlier in the day by William Evanina, the government's chief counterintelligence official. The statement said adversaries such as China, Russia and Iran are seeking to compromise U.S. private communications and infrastructure in campaigns. It also warned of disinformation being pushed out on social media.
Without giving specifics, the Democrats said Evanina's statement “does not go nearly far enough in arming the American people with the knowledge they need about how foreign powers are seeking to influence our political process” and falsely paints the three countries as equivalent in their efforts. The statement was from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence panel.
“We can trust the American people with knowing what to do with the information they receive and making those decisions for themselves,” the Democrats said. "But they cannot do so if they are kept in the dark about what our adversaries are doing, and how they are doing it. When it comes to American elections, Americans must decide.”
The Democrats specifically criticized the line in Evanina's statement that said Russia has a persistent objective to weaken the U.S. and “denigrate what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment’ in America." They said that line “omits much on a subject of immense importance” and is “so generic as to be almost meaningless.”
In his statement, Evanina said it would be “extraordinarily difficult” for the adversaries to broadly disrupt the fall election or change vote tallies, but that “we continue to monitor malicious cyber actors trying to gain access to U.S. state and federal networks, including those responsible for managing elections.”
Specifically, Evanina said, China is “expanding its influence efforts to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and counter criticism of China.” Iran is also spreading disinformation to undermine U.S. institutions, he said.
It is unclear what information the Democrats want to be made public. On Monday, the same four Democrats wrote in a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray that they are concerned that Congress appears to be the target of a “concerted foreign interference campaign” to influence the 2020 presidential election. They asked Wray for an all-members, classified briefing on the matter before the August recess.
Democrats, including members of the Senate intelligence panel, have voiced concerns that an ongoing Republican probe into Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and his work in Ukraine would amplify Russian disinformation. But they did not specifically mention the investigation,which is being led by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
The warnings from all sides come after bipartisan criticism of the way President Barack Obama's administration handled the 2016 interference as it was happening. A bipartisan congressional report released by the Senate intelligence committee earlier this year said the Obama administration was ill-prepared to handle and failed to respond effectively as officials feared getting caught up in a heavily politicized environment and undermining the election.