Byron York

Is the Intelligence Community Planning To Meddle in 2020 Election?

Recently the intelligence community made clear it will be a player in the 2020 presidential election. No one should be surprised.

On February 13, the House Intelligence Committee held a meeting at which intel officials briefed lawmakers on foreign efforts to influence U.S. elections. By several accounts, the officials told the committee that Russia is working to re-elect President Trump.

A number of Republican committee members were deeply skeptical. What the officials said was classified, so they cannot discuss it publicly, but in conversations later, GOP lawmakers made it clear that the intel officials did not have the evidence to support their assertion.

"How should reporting take place?" one member said later. "You would say, 'We believe X is true based on A, B, C and D.' When that doesn't happen, it's very suspect."

"If you're going to make an accusation like that, you darn well better be ready to answer questions and have evidence to support it," said another member. When pressed, the member added, officials gave "very vague and unsatisfying answers."

The Republicans' objection was not to the idea that Russia is trying to interfere in a U.S. election. That is an accepted fact. The problem was the assessment that Russia is specifically trying to help re-elect Trump. That claim, so incendiary in the 2016 election, was unsupported by the evidence, they said.

As they left the meeting, Republicans agreed that the news would leak soon. It almost seemed to be why Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee chairman and impeachment leader, had called the meeting in the first place.

No one was surprised when, a week later, The New York Times published a story headlined "Lawmakers Are Warned That Russia Is Meddling to Re-elect Trump." The news quickly became another one of those bombshell reports that consume hours of talk on cable TV.

Democrats, who were also barred by law from revealing classified information, were nevertheless happy to play along. For example, not long after the story broke, Democratic Rep. Jim Himes, an Intelligence Committee member, appeared on CNN.

"I can't talk about what happened in a classified setting," Himes said. "But ... you don't need an intelligence briefing to think about what Vladimir Putin might want. Would he want a return to sort of conventional, much more confrontational policy with respect to Russia? Or might he want a president who will criticize everybody on the planet except Vladimir Putin?"

Himes's point was clear: I can't talk about it, but of course Putin is working to re-elect Trump.

The problem was, intel officials did not have the evidence to make that assertion. And almost as soon as the story broke, officials with knowledge of the meeting suggested that the headlines were wrong. On Sunday, CNN reported that Pierson had apparently "overstated" the Putin-wants-Trump story.

And then there were the circumstances of the briefing. The intelligence community works for the president. Yet officials chose to brief Chairman Schiff's House Intelligence Committee on this extraordinarily consequential finding before telling the president.

Whatever the motive, spilling the beans in a room with dozens of people present -- intel officials brought a lot of staff with them -- increased the chances of precisely the type of leak that occurred.

The whole thing hit the White House by surprise. "I have not seen that analysis," national security adviser Robert O'Brien told ABC Sunday, referring to the Putin-wants-Trump assessment. "I've been with the leaders of the Intelligence Committee. They don't have it. So if there's some lower-level people at [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] that came in and gave this analysis to the House -- look, I'd like to see it. But I haven't seen it."

Later, just to make matters more difficult, there were leaks that Russia is also trying to help elect Bernie Sanders. The leak left many experts baffled -- except to the extent that, with the Trump leak, it seemed to target the intelligence community's two least-favorite candidates.

There were lots of reports that President Trump was angry after the news broke. And why shouldn't he be angry? Way back in January 2017, when Trump was president-elect and protesting that the intelligence community was out to get him, Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer famously said, "You take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you."

The years that followed proved that to be true. And it still is.