The Trump administration created more fears about that possibility this weekend when, as first reported by CNN, it informed members of Congress that the intelligence chief will no longer brief them in person on election security issues. It was yet another attack by the Trump administration on democratic institutions and the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution, but also — as one of the Senate’s only two independent senators argued Saturday — an insult to the American people.
On its own, the notification from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that the office would no longer brief Congress in person might seem like an esoteric issue to Americans who are struggling to return to normal life as the coronavirus pandemic continues its deadly rampage and millions of US workers have lost their jobs.
But it was the latest in a long list of efforts by Trump and his administration to erode the checks on their power two months from Election Day — efforts that have appeared to have one goal in common: ensuring that the President will be reelected in November.
The list is now too long to fit in one paragraph: The cuts to the US Postal Service at a time when many American want mail-in ballots to avoid getting sick at the polls; Trump’s efforts to undermine faith in America’s election system by claiming, without evidence, the increase in mail-in ballots will lead to a “rigged” presidential election; the Republican Party’s use of the awesome power of the presidency to produce a propaganda-filled convention complete with pardons and the transformation of the South Lawn of the White House into a political arena; the bullying of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revise its guidance on Covid-19 testing; the vow to produce a coronavirus vaccine this year despite concerns from scientists about that timeline, and the administration’s recent exaggerations about the lifesaving benefits of convalescent plasma treatment as they announced an emergency authorization for its use.
‘A slap in the face to the American people’
The President’s explanation for the change to election security intelligence briefings Saturday sounded benign, as usual. While visiting Texas to survey the response to Hurricane Laura, he said Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe had eliminated the in-person briefings because he wanted to make sure that election security information “doesn’t leak.”
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, rejected that explanation as a rationale during an interview Saturday with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.”
“The taxpayers of America are paying billions of dollars for the collection of intelligence — and we, the people, should have the benefit, the knowledge that that intelligence brings,” said King, who caucuses with the Democrats. “Learning about it next February or March doesn’t do much good. We’re talking about interference with our election this year, which we know is going on — the intelligence community has already told us that.”
King pointed out that members of Congress need the face-to-face briefings in order to ask follow-up questions to the written reports, to probe and deepen representatives’ understanding of the intelligence. “So this is a real step backward. It’s a real slap in the face to the American people, who have a right to know what the intelligence community knows. That’s what they’re there for.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, two of Trump’s top political adversaries, called the maneuver “a shocking abdication” of the administration’s “lawful responsibility” to keep Congress informed.
On “State of the Union” Sunday, Schiff said it is possible the House could subpoena intelligence officials to testify on election interference.
“I can’t speak for what decision ultimately we’ll make. That’s a decision that will have to go to the Speaker,” Schiff told CNN’s Dana Bash Sunday, referring to Pelosi.
“It belongs to the American people. The agencies are merely the custodians of that information,” Schiff said. “The American people ought to know what Russia is doing. They ought to know their President is unwilling to stand up to Vladimir Putin.”
The President suggested Saturday without evidence that Schiff or others might have leaked information from previous intelligence briefings.
“Director Radcliffe brought information into the committee and the information leaked,” Trump said, explaining the reason for the change to reporters in Texas. “Whether it was shifty Schiff or someone else, they leaked the information before it gets in and what’s even worse they leaked the wrong information and he got tired of it, so he wants to do it in a different form because you have leakers on the committee.”
On Fox News Sunday, Ratcliffe claimed he was cracking down on members of Congress who leak information for political purposes. “We’re going to do what we’re supposed to do, but what we’re also going to do is protect information from being leaked for political purposes. It’s just happened too much and I won’t stand for it,” he said.
Schiff told Bash on Sunday that neither he or anyone on his staff have leaked information and said the President’s claims about leaks amounted to “another lie” and a “false rationalization.”
“They weren’t concerned about leaks after the last briefing or they wouldn’t have come back to offer another briefing,” Schiff said. “What changed is, of course, the President, probably in another fit, saying I don’t want Congress informed. Because the last time that Congress was informed, the director of national intelligence had to put out another statement to acknowledge the fact the Russians are helping Donald Trump again.”
King told Blitzer that during his nearly eight years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he couldn’t recall any time when anything was leaked from the committee.
Potential foreign meddling
Earlier this month, Bill Evanina, the top intelligence official for election security, alerted the American people in a statement that there is a high level of concern about potential foreign meddling in the election and that China “prefers” an outcome where Trump is not reelected in November while Russia is working to “denigrate” Biden’s White House bid.
“We assess that China prefers that President Trump — whom Beijing sees as unpredictable — does not win reelection,” Evanina wrote. “China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China.”
Evanina said Russia “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’ 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.”
Iran, Evanina said, is trying to “undermine US democratic institutions” and Trump in the hopes of further dividing the country.
In a show of bipartisanship at the time, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Republican and Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, released a joint statement encouraging the intelligence community to “continue to make this information available.”
On Saturday, they responded to the news in separate statements. Warner called the decision to stop in-person briefings an “unprecedented attempt to politicize an issue — protecting our democracy from foreign intervention — that should be non-partisan.”
“Congressional oversight of intelligence activities now faces a historic crisis,” Rubio said in his own statement. The Florida Republican went on to blame Democrats and slam the leaks.
“Yet, this grotesque criminal misconduct does not release the intelligence community from fulfilling its legal requirements” of keeping Congress informed, he said, adding that he’d spoken to Ratcliffe, who said the committee will continue to receive briefings. There’s no indication that means in-person briefings will resume.
The Trump administration’s policy change on intelligence briefings could clearly limit the amount of information that American voters have about election interference — the question now is whether they will demand greater transparency from the administration about efforts to subvert their democracy.
This story has been updated to include additional comments made on Sunday news shows.