The Trump administration created more fears about the possibility this weekend when, as first reported by CNN, it informed members of Congress that the intelligence chief would no longer inform them in person about the problems of electoral security. It was another attack by the Trump administration on democratic institutions and the constitutionally enshrined separation of powers, but also – as one of only two independent senators in the Senate argued on Saturday – an insult to the people American.
On its own, the notification from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that the office no longer informs Congress in person could seem like an esoteric problem to Americans struggling to return to normal life as the coronavirus pandemic continues its deadly rampage. and millions of American workers have lost their jobs.
But it was the latest in a long list of efforts by Trump and his administration to erode control of their power two months before election day – efforts that seemed to have a common goal: to make sure the president will be re-elected in November. .
‘A slap in the face to the American people’
The president’s explanation for the change in election security intelligence briefings on Saturday seemed trivial, as usual. During his visit to Texas to study the response to Hurricane Laura, he said National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe eliminated in-person briefings because he wanted to ensure information on electoral security “do not flee”.
Independent Senator Angus King from Maine dismissed this explanation as justification during an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Saturday on “The Situation Room.”
“American taxpayers pay billions of dollars for intelligence gathering – and we the people should have the benefits, the knowledge that intelligence brings,” said King, who is meeting with Democrats. “Learning about it in February or next March doesn’t do a lot of good. We’re talking about interference with our election this year, which we know is happening – the intelligence community has told us that before. ”
King stressed that members of Congress need face-to-face briefings to ask follow-up questions to written reports, to probe and deepen intelligence officials’ understanding. “So it’s a real step backwards. This is a real slap in the face for the American people, who have a right to know what the intelligence community knows. That’s what they’re here for. ”
But Trump dismissed the alarm raised by lawmakers such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Speaker Adam Schiff, two of his main political opponents, who called the move a “shocking abdication” the administration’s “legal responsibility” to keep Congress informed; and the betrayal of the public’s right to know “the efforts of foreign powers to interfere in their elections.” The president suggested without evidence that Schiff or others might have leaked information from previous intelligence briefings.
“Director Radcliffe has brought information to the committee and the information has been leaked,” Trump told reporters in Texas in response to a question about the reason for the change. “Whether it’s a sneaky Schiff or someone else, they leaked information before it came in and what’s even worse, they leaked bad information and he got fed up, so he wants to do it in a different form because you are leaking on the board. ”
Schiff responded on Twitter on Saturday night saying the president was “lying and making projections.” The California Democrat argued that Trump fired the last director of national intelligence for briefing Congress on Russia’s efforts to aid his campaign.
“Now he’s completely finishing the briefings,” Schiff tweeted. “Trump doesn’t want the American people to know about Russia’s efforts to aid in his re-election. ”
King told Blitzer that in his nearly eight years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he had no recollection of when anything was leaked by the committee.
Potential foreign interference
Earlier this month, Bill Evanina, the senior intelligence official for election security, alerted the American people in a statement that there is a high level of concern about possible foreign interference in the election and that the China “prefers” an outcome where Trump is not re-elected. in November as Russia tries to “denigrate” Biden’s White House candidacy.
“We believe that China prefers that President Trump – whom Beijing considers unpredictable – not to win re-election,” wrote Evanina. “China has stepped up its influence efforts before November 2020 to shape the political environment in the United States, to pressure politicians it sees as opposed to China’s interests, and to deflect and counter criticism of the China. ”
Evanina said Russia is “using a series of measures primarily to denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russian ‘establishment’. This is consistent with Moscow’s public criticism of him when he was vice president for his role in the Obama administration’s policy on Ukraine and his support for the anti-Putin opposition in Russia. ”
Iran, Evanina said, is trying to “undermine America’s democratic institutions” and Trump in hopes of further dividing the country.
In a display of bipartisanship at the time, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Virginia Senator Mark Warner, the top Republican and Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, issued a joint statement encouraging the intelligence community to “continue to render this information available ”.
On Saturday, they responded to the news in separate statements. Warner called the decision to end in-person briefings an “unprecedented attempt to politicize an issue – shielding our democracy from foreign intervention – which should be non-partisan.”
“Congressional control of intelligence activity now faces a historic crisis,” Rubio said in his own statement. The Florida Republican then blamed Democrats and criticized the leaks.
“Yet this ludicrous criminal misconduct does not free the intelligence community to fulfill its legal obligations” to keep Congress informed, he said, adding that he had spoken to Ratcliffe, who said the committee would continue to receive briefings. There is no indication that the in-person briefings will resume.
The Trump administration’s change in policy on intelligence briefings could clearly limit the amount of information American voters have about election interference – the question now is whether they will demand more transparency from the government. administration on efforts to overthrow their democracy.