It’s happening again.
America is blundering into a new Russia election-meddling hall of mirrors that’s already doing Moscow’s work: tearing fresh political divides and threatening to again tarnish democracy’s most sacred moment, a national election.
Revelations Thursday about intelligence assessments that Russia has launched a new interference effort to help reelect Donald Trump – and the President’s furious reaction – mark the return of a recurring nightmare for the country just nine months before the presidential election.
Trump was informed that the House Intelligence Committee was told of the Russian intelligence operation last week by Rep. Devin Nunes, his Republican ally from California and was frustrated that Democrats would be able to use the information against him, a source told CNN. A more conventional reaction by the commander-in-chief given his institutional responsibilities might be anger that again a foreign power was trying to manipulate US politics – however it might affect his own fortunes.
The uproar over Russia’s disinformation drive to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Trump four years ago cast a cloud that the current President has never been able to escape. The President’s defensive response to a new Russia interference drama, colored by his belief that all such revelations as a “Deep State” assault on his own legitimacy, already appears to be exacerbating the damage caused by Moscow’s meddling.
Trump’s preoccupation with suggestions that he only won in 2016 because of Russia sparked destabilizing and willful presidential behavior, including the firing of FBI Director James Comey that led to a years-long special counsel probe.
If his reelection bid is tainted in the same way, his conduct could become even more erratic at a time when he is already mounting an assault on US institutions like the Justice Department and acting with unbridled power following his acquittal in an impeachment trial.
And the new revelations about Russia are certain to further damage the tenuous relationship between a President who denies election meddling ever happened, and an intelligence community that is charged with detecting such threats and countering them – but is ultimately under Trump’s control and susceptible to his political pressure.
Russia fulfilling its goals once more
Partisan uproar over the new claims, meanwhile, suggests that the alleged operation is again delivering for Russia on its intended goals: sowing distrust in the US system and turning Americans against themselves in a way that weakens national unity.
Signs of Russian hacking, social media meddling and attacks on US infrastructure and the resulting confusion and controversy in Washington raise a sobering possibility: the second US election in a row risks being besmirched in the eyes of millions of voters at an already corrosive moment for US democracy.
Sources told CNN that the President was irate that intelligence community briefers told House lawmakers about Russia’s new threat in a meeting last week. Trump was especially frustrated that House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, who led impeachment hearings against him, was given the information.
Schiff was quick to respond to the public reports, first published by The New York Times, about last week’s classified briefing.
“We count on the intelligence community to inform Congress of any threat of foreign interference in our elections,” Schiff tweeted. “If reports are true and the President is interfering with that, he is again jeopardizing our efforts to stop foreign meddling. Exactly as we warned he would do.”
The President was frustrated that he had to learn about the briefing from a lawmaker and not from one of his officials, the person familiar with the situation told CNN.
He expressed frustration that “it’s happening again,” the person said, referring to his perception that political rivals were able to weaponize intelligence related to Russia. The Washington Post first reported the involvement of Nunes.
The partisan divide that hampered efforts to respond to Russian election meddling in 2016 is already reemerging.
Republicans in the hearing reportedly pushed back against the revelations of new Russian election meddling, in a sign of how intelligence – that can only be effective if its regarded as nonpartisan – is being politically tainted.
“The briefers were not ambiguous about the Kremlin having a preference for Trump,” said a source familiar with the classified briefing.
Texas Rep. Will Hurd, a former CIA officer, asked Nunes for some time for questioning and pressed the briefer about what led to the statements that Russia preferred Trump as President. The briefer responded that they did not have the underlying data, just the assessment.
Trump’s allies like Utah’s Chris Stewart and Brad Wenstrup of Ohio started arguing that the assessment cannot be true because no President has been tougher on Moscow than Trump – a highly subjective assessment, especially given the President’s repeated and puzzling deference to Putin.
The accounts being described by sources suggest that Trump was more interested in suppressing the information for his own political gain than acting to protect the election. And the drama raises the question of whether his replacement of the acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire with a political acolyte, Richard Grenell, this week is an attempt to appoint an ally to ensure such politically damaging information doesn’t get out.
There has been no public reaction so far from Trump to the latest Russia controversy.
But he’s likely at some point to go on a prolonged tear over the new revelations since he’s never really gotten over the 2016 election’s Russia storm. He frequently blasts the idea that Russia interfered as a “hoax” made up by Democrats to discredit him.
In one stunning appearance with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in 2018, he publicly took the Russian President’s word over that of his own intelligence agencies on the question of election meddling.
The political impact of the new Russia intrigue
Descriptions of Trump’s reactions to the new interference operation are likely to further embitter an already negative and nasty 2020 election campaign. Trump’s opponents will be extremely skeptical about his motives and willingness to defend the US system – and may fulfill his fears that they will use the information against him to present him again as Putin’s patsy.
There is also precedent for the President being open to outside political influence.
The Mueller report showed how Trump’s 2016 campaign expected to benefit from Russian election meddling even if it did not establish coordination between his team and Moscow.
And the trial of Roger Stone – who was sentenced to 40 months in jail on Thursday – showed how the Trump campaign was eager to hear about how WikiLeaks would handle Democratic Party emails stolen by Russia in 2016 in a bid to damage Clinton.
The way that the news of the latest Russian meddling allegations emerged also raises new doubts about Trump’s sincerity to defend the election or to put his own political interests to one side.
“The really disturbing part of this is that it is so important for us as lawmakers who are privy to this information, this intelligence, to get it openly and honestly, then figure out what to do about it,” Rep. Kathleen Rice, a Democrat of New York, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
“The fact that this President, time and again puts his own personal and political future ahead of not just every other American but also our national security is just so outrageous. What is there to say?” she asked.
US intelligence officials have repeatedly warned that Russia did not stop its efforts to interfere in US elections after 2016.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that Moscow was continuing to “engage in malign foreign influence” online with the goal of sowing division and discord, “and to generate controversy, to generate distrust in our democratic institutions in our electoral process.”
A national security official in the Trump administration told CNN that election security official Shelby Pierson, who conducted last week’s briefing, may have mischaracterized the intelligence that Russia has developed a preference for Trump.
“A more reasonable interpretation of the intelligence is not that they have a preference, it’s a step short of that. It’s more that they understand the President is someone they can work with, he’s a dealmaker. But not that they prefer him over (Bernie) Sanders or (Pete) Buttigieg or anyone else,” the official said.
Trump supporters push back at claims he’s been soft on Russia, noting that he sold lethal weapons to Ukraine – a step the Obama administration refused to take – and kicked out Russian diplomats after Moscow tried to assassinate a former intelligence defector on US soil.
But many of Trump’s foreign policy moves have seemed to play into Russia’s goals, including his withdrawal from Syria, his claim that Ukraine, not Moscow, interfered in the 2016 election and his frequent attacks on NATO and Western unity.
So it is not hard to see why Russia – which pursues a foreign policy largely designed to splinter US influence and undermine the West – might favor four more years of Trump if its goal is indeed to see him returned to the Oval Office.
This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Dana Bash contributed to this story