A 15-page American intelligence report has added heft to longstanding allegations that some of Donald Trump’s top lieutenants were playing into Moscow’s hands.
Russia has described US intelligence allegations that President Vladimir Putin had likely directed efforts to try to swing the 2020 US presidential election to Donald Trump as baseless.
"The document prepared by the US intelligence community is another set of baseless accusations against our country for interfering in American domestic political processes," Russia's embassy in the United States said in a statement on Facebook on Wednesday.
A 15-page American intelligence report, released on Tuesday, added heft to longstanding allegations that some of Trump's top lieutenants were playing into Moscow's hands by amplifying claims made against then-candidate Joe Biden by Russian-linked Ukrainian figures in the run-up to the November 3 election.
"The conclusions of the report on Russia conducting influence operations in America are confirmed solely by the confidence of the intelligence services of their self-righteousness. No facts or specific evidence of such claims were provided," the Russian embassy said.
A declassified US intelligence assessment says Putin authorised influence operations to shape the outcome of the race.
The report released from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence represents the most detailed assessment of the array of foreign threats to the 2020 election.
These included efforts by Iran to undermine confidence in the vote and harm Trump’s reelection prospects as well as Moscow operations that relied on Trump's allies to smear Joe Biden, the eventual winner.
Despite those threats, though, intelligence officials found "no indications that any foreign actor attempted to interfere in the 2020 US elections by altering any technical aspect of the voting process, including voter registration, ballot casting, vote tabulation, or reporting results.”
The report is the latest official affirmation of the integrity of the election, even as Trump supporters continue to make false claims of interference, from foreign or domestic actors, and refuse to accept Biden’s victory.
Multiple courts and even Trump’s own Justice Department refuted claims of widespread fraud.
The document makes clear that even while Trump has cried foul about the legitimacy of the election, intelligence officials believe Russia sought to influence people close to Trump as a way to tip the election in his favour.
The report, rejected by Russia as “unsubstantiated,” wades into the politically charged task of ferreting out which foreign adversaries supported which candidates during the 2020 election, an issue that dominated headlines last year.
Opposed to Kremlin's interests
The report says, Russia sought to undermine Biden’s candidacy because it viewed his presidency as opposed to the Kremlin's interests, though it took some steps to prepare for a Democratic administration as the election neared.
The report also says Putin authorised influence operations aimed at denigrating Biden, boosting Trump, undermining confidence in the election and exacerbating social divisions in the US
Central to that effort was reliance on proxies linked to Russian intelligence “to launder influence narratives" by using media organisations, US officials and people close to Trump to push “misleading or unsubstantiated" allegations against Biden.
Intelligence officials did not single out any Trump ally in that effort. But longtime associate Rudy Giuliani met multiple times with Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Derkach, who in 2020 released heavily edited recordings of Biden in an effort to link the Democratic nominee to unsubstantiated corruption allegations.
US officials have said they regard Derkach as an “active Russian agent,” and Tuesday's report said Putin is believed to have “purview” over his activities.
Notably, though, Russia was not as aggressive as in past election cycles in trying to hack election infrastructure.
The report says Russian cyber operations that targeted state and local government networks last year were probably not election-focused and were instead part of a broader effort to target US and global entities.
China's interference disproven
Trump, whose 2016 campaign benefited from hacking by Russian intelligence officers and a covert social media effort, seized on an intelligence assessment from August that said China preferred a Biden presidency — even though the same assessment also said Russia was working to boost Trump's own candidacy by disparaging Biden.
Tuesday's report, however, says China ultimately did not interfere on either side and “considered but did not deploy" influence operations intended to affect the outcome.
US officials say they believe Beijing prioritised a stable relationship with the US and did not consider either election outcome as advantageous enough for it to risk the “blowback” that would ensue if it got caught with interfering.
Iran's influence campaign
Iran, meanwhile, carried out an influence campaign aimed at harming Trump's reelection bid, an effort US officials say was probably approved by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
One “highly targeted operation" — the subject of an October news conference by then-Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray — involved a flurry of emails to Democratic voters in battleground states that falsely purported to be from the far-right group Proud Boys and threatened the recipients if they didn't vote for Trump.
Iran's efforts, which officials say were more aggressive than in past elections and continued even after the contest was over, were focused on sowing discord in the US, likely because Tehran believed that would hurt Trump's re-election chances.
Though Iran sought to exploit vulnerabilities on state election websites, and did “compromise US entities associated with election infrastructure as a part of a broad targeting effort across multiple sectors worldwide,” it did not attempt to manipulate votes or affect election infrastructure, the report concluded.
Washington is expected to impose sanctions on Moscow as soon as next week because of the allegations, three sources said on Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
Those sanctions could also address the cyber hack blamed on Russia that used US company SolarWinds Corp to penetrate US government networks.
The Kremlin on Wednesday rejected the allegations in the report.
“We disagree with this report’s findings about our country,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call with reporters. “Russia didn’t interfere with the previous election and didn’t interfere with the 2020 election mentioned in the report."
He said Russia "has nothing to do with campaigns against any of the candidates,” calling the report “unfounded and unsubstantiated.” He expressed regret that “such materials, far from being of high quality,” could be used as a pretext for new sanctions against Russia.
The United States imposed sanctions on four senior Russian officials earlier this month over Moscow's treatment of opposition politician Alexey Navalny, something Moscow cast as unacceptable meddling in its domestic affairs.