- Top officials obtained the first concrete evidence of foreign interference in the 2020 election cycle, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe announced Wednesday.
- Ratcliffe said Iran and Russia had obtained voter registration information for the purpose of meddling in the election.
- Officials also said that Iran was specifically responsible for a slew of email spoofs sent to voters, including emails sent to Democratic voters in four states on Tuesday threatening them to vote for Trump “or else.”
- Many condemned Radcliffe for claiming that Iran sent the emails to hurt President Trump and downplaying Russia’s role in election interference.
- Other’s also accused him of selectively declassifying intelligence to benefit Trump’s campaign.
U.S. Officials Announce Election Interference
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe announced Wednesday that Iran and Russia had obtained voter registration information that could be used to disrupt the election, marking the first time top officials have provided concrete evidence of international interference in this election cycle.
“We have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran, and separately by Russia,” Ratcliffe said in a last-minute press briefing. “This data can be used by foreign actors to attempt to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos, and undermine your confidence in American democracy.”
Ratcliffe also specifically claimed that Iran was behind a string of spoofed emails, including threatening messages sent to Democratic voters in at least four states earlier this week. Those emails, which were sent from a domain associated with the far-right group the Proud Boys, claimed to have “gained access into the entire voting infrastructure.” The messages also told recipients if they did not vote for President Donald Trump the group would “come after” them.
The Proud Boys denied any involvement, and Radcliffe’s announcement appears to support that. Notably, both Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray, who also spoke at the press conference, did not indicate that either foreign country had hacked into election infrastructure or voter registration systems. They also did not say that any election results or voter registration information had been changed.
In fact, intelligence officials who spoke to reporters said that the data they claimed both Iran and Russia and Iran had obtained was largely public, such as the names, party affiliations, and some basic contact info of registered voters.
That information, Ratcliffe said, was also used by Iran to email a video “that implies that individuals could cast fraudulent ballots, even from overseas.” He added that both emails were “designed to intimidate voters, insight social unrest, and damage President Trump.”
“Although we have not seen the same actions from Russia, we are aware that they have obtained some voter information just as they did in 2016,” he continued.
Shortly after Ratcliffe’s announcement, Google appeared to back up some of his claims about Iran. In a statement, the company confirmed that it had detected around 25,000 emails that targeted users as part of what it described as an Iran-linked disinformation campaign. Google added that about 10%, or 2,500 emails, had slipped through their spam filters.
But many people still had serious issues with Ratcliffe’s characterizations of the situation and dredged up past criticisms of him.
Many Democrats and former intelligence officials have accused Ratcliffe — who is supposed to be apolitical in his role of DNI — of being a Trump loyalist who has used his position to promote the president’s political agenda.
Those allegations are specifically concerning when it comes to foreign interference in the election because Ratcliffe has both actively spread information that the intelligence community had deemed to be false regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election. and has promoted debunked conspiracies about the following investigation.
Beyond that, the DNI has also explicitly been accused of selectively declassifying intelligence pertaining to election interference to help the Trump campaign. In fact, earlier this month, many former top officials condemned him for doing just that when he released intelligence about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign that was not only unverified but also, according to intelligence experts, may have been Russian disinformation.
As a result, many condemned Ratcliffe’s announcement Wednesday as yet another example of him publicizing information to benefit Trump, specifically pointing to his claims that Iran sent the emails to “damage” the president.
Unpacking Ratcliffe’s Claims
It is true that since August, intelligence officials have said that Iran opposes Trump’s re-election. Still, Ratcliffe provided no evidence for the claim that Iran was trying to explicitly hurt Trump. On the contrary, many others have said the current evidence indicates that the country is simply trying to create general chaos and distrust.
Many pointed to the fact that the emails reported Tuesday explicitly threatened Democratic voters, and while some did argue that it was an attempt to make the Proud Boys and Trump look bad, at the end of the day, it was still an attempt to dissuade Democrat voters from either voting blue or going to the polls entirely.
Bennett Ragan, the campaign manager for a Democratic State House candidate in Florida, who claimed he received both of the threatening emails, told The Washington Post that he believed the messages were sent to intimidate Democratic voters in one of the most contested swing states.
“When you have people who have a voter roll and then send off emails, they will make a big splash,” he said. “They will scare people. That is without a doubt the intent.”
Similarly, others also pointed to the video that Ratcliffe said Iran sent voters with disinformation about voting overseas. According to The Post, which reviewed the video, it consisted of “Trump making disparaging comments about mail-in voting, followed by a logo with the name of the Proud Boys,” then going on to document what is supposed to “appear as a hack of voting data in an effort to produce a fraudulent ballot.”
Regarding the video, critics of Radcliffe argued that it was not intended to make Trump look bad because it was an attempt to spread disinformation about fraud in mail-in balloting by drawing from false statements the president himself made to undermine confidence in voting systems.
This general idea about undermining confidence is also another reason used to dispute Ratcliffe’s claim that this was meant to hurt Trump. The president has spent months trying to undermine the election results. Critics argued that, as a result, these alleged attempts by foreign actors are just them playing off the distrust and discord the president has already created.
That idea was also echoed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-Ny.) who said that based on a classified briefing he received, he “had the strong impression it was much rather to undermine confidence in elections and not aimed at any particular figure.”
“I’m surprised that DNI Ratcliffe said that at his press conference,” he added.
The official Twitter account for the House Homeland Security Committee also hit on a similar point, directly contradicting Ratcliffe, and calling his credibility into question.
“These election interference operations are clearly not meant to harm President Trump,” the committee tweeted. “Ratcliffe has TOO OFTEN politicized the Intelligence Community to carry water for the President.”
“You can’t emphasize one threat over another to suit the President’s ego,” it added.
To that point, many other people also accused Ratcliffe of playing down Russia’s role in election interference. In his announcement, Ratcliffe mostly focused on Iran and claimed that while Russia had the same information, they were not using it the same way. However, multiple U.S. officials who spoke anonymously to The Post “stressed that Russia still remained the major threat to the 2020 election.”
As for Iran and Russia, both have directly disputed the claims that they are interfering in the U.S. election. In a statement to the media, and Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the country strongly rejects “American officials’ repetitive, baseless and false claims.”
A spokesperson for Kremlin also denied Russia’s role in influencing the election in a similar statement.
“The accusations are poured out every day, they are all absolutely groundless, they are not based on anything, rather it is a tribute to the internal political processes associated with the upcoming election,” they said.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (CNN)
Senate Democrats To Introduce Voting Rights Bill This Week
Republicans are expected to block the legislation, but Democratic leaders hope the GOP’s unified opposition will lay the groundwork to justify getting rid of the filibuster.
Voting Bill Set for Floor
Senate Democrats are officially set to advance their voting rights bill this week, with a procedural vote to start debate on the legislation scheduled for Tuesday.
The move comes as an increasing number of Democrats and progressive activists have begun to embrace a more watered-down version of the bill proposed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), the sole Democrat who opposed the initial proposal on the grounds that it was too partisan.
While Democrats have spent the weekend hashing out the final details of compromise on Manchin’s bill, which he has touted as a more bipartisan compromise, Senate Republicans have still broadly rejected it.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who previously opposed the initial For the People Act as too far-reaching, called Manchin’s alternative proposal “equally unacceptable” and predicted that no members of his party will vote in favor.
The legislation is all but guaranteed to fail in the chamber, where it will require all 50 Democrats and at least 10 Republicans to overcome the filibuster.
However, bringing the bill to the floor still has major utility for Democrats because it will lay the groundwork for the party to justify scrapping the filibuster entirely.
Pathway for Filibuster Reform
Specifically, if Manchin agrees to some form of the bill which Republicans then filibuster, Democrats can say they had the to votes to pass the legislation if the filibuster were removed.
That, in turn, would bolster the Democratic argument that bipartisanship cannot be a precondition to taking actions to secure our democracy if it relies on reaching common ground with a party that they believe is increasingly and transparently committed to undermining democracy.
It would also give more ground to the Democratic claim that the GOP is abusing existing Senate rules to block policy changes that have gained wide public support following the Jan. 6 insurrection and amid the growing efforts by Republican governors and legislatures to restrict voting access in their states.
As a result, if Republicans block the legislation along party lines, Democratic leaders hope that could change objections to scrapping the filibuster voiced privately by some members and publicly by Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Az.).
This is especially true for Tuesday’s planned vote, because it is just a vote to proceed to debate, meaning that if Republicans filibuster, they will be preventing the Senate from even debating any efforts to protect democracy, including Manchin’s plan which he crafted specifically to reach a compromise with the GOP.
Whether a full party rejection would be enough to move the needle for Manchin and the other Democrats remains to be seen. Any successful overhaul of the contentious Senate rule would not only be incredibly significant for President Joe Biden’s agenda, but also for the precedent it could set.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Reuters) (USA Today)
McConnell Says He Would Block a Biden SCOTUS Nominee in 2024
The Senate Minority Leader also refused to say whether or not he would block a hypothetical nominee in 2023 if his party overtakes the chamber’s slim majority in the midterm elections.
McConnell Doubles Down
During an interview with conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt on Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) threatened to block a hypothetical Supreme Court nominee from President Joe Biden in 2024 if Republicans took control of the Senate.
“I think in the middle of a presidential election, if you have a Senate of the opposite party of the president, you have to go back to the 1880s to find the last time a vacancy was filled,” he said. “So I think it’s highly unlikely. In fact, no, I don’t think either party if it controlled, if it were different from the president, would confirm a Supreme Court nominee in the middle of an election.”
McConnell’s remarks do not come as a surprise as they are in line with his past refusal to consider former President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the court in February 2016 on the grounds that it was too close to the presidential election.
The then-majority leader received a ton of backlash for his efforts, especially after he forced through Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation just eight days before the 2020 election. At the time, McConnell argued the two situations were different because the Senate and the president were from the same party — a claim he reiterated in the interview.
McConnell also implied he may take that stance even further in comments to Hewitt, who asked if he would block the appointment of a Supreme Court justice if a seat were to be vacated at the end of 2023 about 18 months before the next inauguration — a precedent set by the appointment of Anthony Kennedy.
“Well, we’d have to wait and see what happens,” McConnell responded.
Many Democrats immediately condemned McConnell’s remarks, including progressive leaders who renewed their calls to expand the court.
“Mitch McConnell is already foreshadowing that he’ll steal a 3rd Supreme Court seat if he gets the chance. He’s done it before, and he’ll do it again. We need to expand the Supreme Court,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Ma.).
Some also called on Justice Stephen Breyer, the oldest SCOTUS judge, to retire.
“If Breyer refuses to retire, he’s not making some noble statement about the judiciary. He is saying he wants Mitch McConnell to handpick his replacement,” said Robert Cruickshank, campaign director for Demand Progress.
Others, however, argued that the response McConnell’s remarks elicited was exactly what he was hoping to see and said his timing was calculated.
The minority leader’s comments come as the calls for Breyer to step down have recently grown while the current Supreme Court term draws near, a time when justices often will announce their retirement.
On Sunday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was asked if she thought Breyer should leave the bench while Democrats still controlled the Senate. She responded that she was “inclined to say yes.”
With his latest public statement, McConnell’s aims are twofold here: he hopes to broaden divisions in the Democratic Party between progressives and more traditional liberals, who are more hesitant to rush Breyer to retire or expand the court, while simultaneously working to unite a fractured Republican base and encourage them to turn out in the midterm elections.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (The Hill)
Gov. Abbott Says Texas Will Build Border Wall With Mexico
The announcement follows months of growing tension between the Texas governor and President Biden over immigration policies.
Texas Border Wall
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced during a press conference Thursday that the state would build a border wall with Mexico, extending the signature campaign promise of former President Donald Trump.
Abbott provided very few details for the border wall plans, and it is unclear if he has the authority to build it.
While some of the land is state-owned, much of it belongs to the federal government or falls on private property.
Even if the state were able to build on federal ground, private landowners who fought the Trump administration’s attempts to take their land through eminent domain would still remain an obstacle for any renewed efforts.
During his term, Trump built over 450 miles of new wall, but most of it covered areas where deteriorating barriers already existed, and thus had previously been approved for the federal project.
The majority of the construction also took place in Arizona, meaning Abbott would have much ground to cover. It is also unclear how the governor plans to pay for the wall.
Trump had repeatedly said Mexico would fund the wall, but that promise remained unfulfilled, and the president instead redirected billions of taxpayer dollars from Defense Department reserves.
While Abbott did say he would announce more details about the wall next week, his plan was condemned as ill-planned by immigration activists, who also threatened legal challenges.
“There is no substantive plan,” said Edna Yang, the co-executive director of the Texas-based immigration legal aid and advocacy group American Gateways. “It’s not going to make any border community or county safer.”
Abbott’s announcement comes amid escalating tensions between the governor and the administration of President Joe Biden.
Biden issued a proclamation that stopped border wall construction on his first day of office, and has since undone multiple Trump-era immigration policies. Abbott, for his part, has blamed Biden’s rollback of Trump’s rules for the influx of migrants at the border in recent months.
Two weeks ago, the governor deployed over 1,000 National Guard members and troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety to the border as part of an initiative launched in March to ramp up border security dubbed Operation Lone Star.
Last week, Abbott issued a disaster declaration which, among other measures, directed the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to strip the state licenses of all shelters that house migrant children and have contracts with the federal government.
The move, which federal officials have already threatened to take legal action against, could effectively force the 52 state-licensed shelters housing around 8,600 children to move the minors elsewhere.
During Thursday’s press conference, Abbott also outlined a variety of other border initiatives, including appropriating $1 billion for border security, creating a task force on border security, and increasing arrests for migrants who enter the country illegally.
“While securing the border is the federal government’s responsibility, Texas will not sit idly by as this crisis grows,” he said. “Our efforts will only be effective if we work together to secure the border, make criminal arrests, protect landowners, rid our communities of dangerous drugs and provide Texans with the support they need and deserve.”