US intelligence says Russia boosted Trump, put down Biden in 2020 election

By Gopal Ratnam
CQ-Roll Call/TNS
Then-President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin give a joint news conference following their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, 2018.

WASHINGTON - Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized and Russian entities carried out influence operations last year aimed at denigrating then-candidate Joe Biden and boosting former President Donald Trump’s candidacy during the 2020 election, U.S. intelligence agencies said in a report made public Tuesday.

However, the report, released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, concluded that no foreign actor attempted to alter any technical aspect of the voting process, such as voter registration, casting of ballots, tabulation or reporting.

The report is an unclassified version of a classified document sent to Trump, top U.S. officials and senior lawmakers on Jan. 7, according to the ODNI.

The report reaffirms the conclusion reached by Christopher Krebs, the former head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency who was fired by Trump after saying that the 2020 election was the “most secure in American history.”

“We have no indications that any foreign actor attempted to interfere in the 2020 U.S. elections by altering any technical aspect of the voting process,” the report said. Unlike 2016, “we did not see persistent Russian cyber efforts to gain access to election infrastructure,” the report said. “We have high confidence in our assessment.”

However, the report laid out in stark terms a wide-ranging influence effort authorized by Putin aimed at knocking down Biden, the Democratic Party and overall confidence in the U.S. electoral process. In 2016, in addition to influence operations, Russian intelligence agencies launched a cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee and stole internal documents as well as attempted to gain access to election systems in dozens of states.

In contrast, Moscow’s strategy “this election cycle was its use of proxies linked to Russian intelligence to push influence narratives - including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden - to U.S. media organizations, U.S. officials, and prominent U.S. individuals, including some close to former President Trump and his administration.”

Trump and many of his close associates repeatedly pushed unproven allegations that Biden and his son Hunter were involved in a corrupt scheme in Ukraine.

“We assess that President Putin and other senior Russian officials were aware of and probably directed Russia’s influence operations against the 2020 U.S. Presidential election,” the report said. “For example, we assess that Putin had purview over the activities of Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian legislator who played a prominent role in Russia’s election influence activities. Derkach has ties to Russian officials as well as Russia’s intelligence services.”

As the election neared, “Moscow placed increasing emphasis on undermining the candidate it saw as most detrimental to its global interests,” or in other words Biden, the report said.

Moscow’s proxies including Derkach “met with and provided materials to Trump administration-linked U.S. persons to advocate for formal investigations,” the report said referring to Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Kremlin’s proxies also contacted several U.S. media figures to try to persuade them about claims on Biden, the report said.

Derkach was sanctioned by the Treasury Department just days before the Jan. 20 inauguration.

Russian operators used troll farms in Ghana, Mexico and Nigeria to promote spurious claims of fraud related to mail-in voting, allege irregularities in the voting process and accuse the Democratic Party of voter fraud, the report said.

The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security along with the FBI released a joint report and statement reaffirming the findings of the U.S. intelligence agencies and asserting that no foreign actor interfered in the voting, changed votes, or “otherwise compromised the integrity” of the process.

The joint report also recommended that state election officials continue to improve cybersecurity measures, assess risks posed by third-party vendors of election equipment and collaborate with federal officials on security measures.

Top lawmakers who oversee U.S. intelligence agencies said the report’s findings and release underscore what they have known for months.

“The Intelligence Community Assessment released today underscores what we all knew already - that Russia interfered to support former President Trump, hurt President Biden, and undermine confidence in our electoral process,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

“Through proxies, Russia ran a successful intelligence operation that penetrated the former president’s inner circle,” Schiff wrote. “Individuals close to the former president were targeted by agents of Russian intelligence including Andriy Derkach and Konstantin Kilimnik, who laundered misinformation into our political system, with the intent of denigrating now-President Biden and damaging his candidacy.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the report highlights the “ongoing and persistent efforts by our adversaries to influence our elections, which all Americans should be informed about.” He said foreign influence in American elections is likely to become an ongoing problem exacerbated by the partisan divide in the country.

The report also examined efforts by China, Iran and other countries in the 2020 election.

While China took some steps to undermine prospects of Trump getting reelected, U.S. spy agencies concluded with “high confidence” that “China did not deploy interference efforts, and considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome” of the election.

Beijing decided that whatever the outcome of the election, trying to influence it was not worth the risk of “getting caught meddling,” the report said.

Instead, China focused its efforts on targeting its messages relating to economic issues and traditional lobbying, the report said.

Iran carried out a “multi-pronged covert influence campaign intended to undercut” Trump’s prospects but did not directly promote his rivals. Under the direction of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Tehran engaged in influence efforts aimed at exacerbating social tensions in the United States, using overt and covert messaging and cyberoperations, the report said.

Other countries and groups including Cuba, Venezuela and Hezbollah took some steps to influence the election but on a smaller scale than Russia, China and Iran, the report said.