The US intelligence community has warned that China, Russia and Iran are all seeking to influence November’s presidential election, with Kremlin-linked actors working in support of Donald Trump, while Tehran and an increasingly assertive Beijing act against the “unpredictable” leader.
“We assess that China prefers that President Trump — whom Beijing sees as unpredictable — does not win re-election,” said William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center at the office of the director of national intelligence.
The warning about attempted election interference against Mr Trump stands in contrast to allegations that Moscow’s intervention helped put him in the White House in the first place. Those claims cast a cloud over Mr Trump’s presidency and led to a lengthy investigation led by former special counsel Robert Mueller, which Mr Trump derided as a “witch hunt”.
Since then, members of Congress have repeatedly sought classified briefings into potential interference in subsequent elections, including the 2020 presidential race.
In February a top intelligence official on elections told members of Congress that Moscow favoured Mr Trump; the president subsequently removed her boss and later appointed John Ratcliffe, a former US attorney with scant intelligence experience, to lead the 17 US spy agencies.
Mr Evanina, whose office reports to Mr Ratcliffe, said US intelligence assessed Russia was deploying measures to denigrate and undermine Mr Trump’s presumptive Democratic opponent, former vice-president Joe Biden, including spreading claims of corruption. He said some Kremlin-linked actors were also seeking to boost Mr Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.
Iran was seeking to undermine US democratic institutions, as well as Mr Trump himself, by spreading “disinformation” online, he added. He said Tehran saw the Trump administration’s stance as an effort to foment regime change in Iran.
Mr Evanina forecast the continued use of “covert and overt influence measures” by foreign states to try to sway voters and stoke discord in the run-up to November’s polls. But he suggested most would stop short of tampering with voting or results.
“They may also seek to compromise our election infrastructure for a range of possible purposes, such as interfering with the voting process, stealing sensitive data, or calling into question the validity of the election results,” he said, although they were unlikely to succeed in manipulating voting results “at scale”.
The Trump campaign said in a statement: “If anyone should face questions about foreign interference in 2020, it’s Joe Biden’s campaign. We don’t need or want foreign interference, and President Trump will beat Joe Biden fair and square.”
The top members of the Senate select committee on intelligence, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Mark Warner, issued a statement in support of Mr Evanina’s assessment. They warned political leaders against “weaponising intelligence matters for political gain”, saying that it fed into the divisive aims of US adversaries.
“Everyone — from the voting public, local officials, and members of Congress — needs to be aware of these threats,” they said in the statement, applauding intelligence agencies for sharing their assessment with the public.