A just-released assessment by U.S. intelligence officials finds Russia and Iran, joined by a handful of other countries and groups, did seek to influence the outcome of the November 2020 presidential election. But the assessment also concludes that, despite repeated warnings by a number of top officials, China ultimately decided to sit it out.
The declassified report, issued Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is the U.S. intelligence community’s final take on foreign meddling in the hotly contested race, in which then-presidential candidate Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump.
Initially completed and shared with the Trump administration in a classified form in January, the unclassified version, required by law, seeks to give U.S. voters an overview of the threats and of their impact on American democracy.
While the assessment concludes no adversary managed to infiltrate critical systems or change how votes were cast, the conclusions on China could lead to new questions about how the intelligence was initially presented to the public.
“We assess that China did not deploy interference efforts and considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the US Presidential election,” the newly released ODNI report said, adding it had “high confidence” in its finding.
“China sought stability in its relationship with the United States, did not view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk getting caught meddling, and assessed its traditional influence tools – primarily targeted economic measures and lobbying – would be sufficient to meet its goal of shaping U.S. China policy regardless of the winner,” the report stated.
Those findings contrast with earlier warnings from intelligence officials who spent months warning voters of the potential threats, specifically calling out efforts by China along with Russia and Iran.
“China is expanding its influence efforts to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and counter criticism of China,” then National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina said in a statement issued last July, 100 days before the election. “Beijing recognizes its efforts might affect the presidential race.”
Other top officials were even more adamant about the threat from China.
In August, then-Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe grouped China with Russia and Iran in an interview with Fox Business News.
“I don’t want to say this is only about China,” Ratcliffe said at the time. “China, Russia, Iran, other actors, are all trying to interfere or influence our elections for their own gain.”
He added, however, that Beijing’s efforts stood apart.
“China’s using a massive and sophisticated influence campaign that dwarfs anything that any other country is doing,” Ratcliffe said.
Another top Trump official, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, echoed those thoughts less than a month later.
“The intelligence community has made very clear, first you have China, which has the most massive program to influence the United States politically,” O’Brien told reporters at the time.
Trump, himself, also played up the notion China was seeking his defeat.
“China would love us to have an election where Donald Trump lost to sleepy Joe Biden,” Trump said during a news conference last August. “They would own our country.”
In the newly declassified report, however, U.S. intelligence officials concluded Beijing did not use its well-developed influence machine to alter the results.
“We did not identify China attempting to interfere with election infrastructure or provide funding to any candidates or parties,” the report said.
It said Beijing had previously sought to influence U.S. politics, including in the 2018 U.S. elections. “We did not, however, see these capabilities deployed for the purpose of shaping the electoral outcome,” the report said.
While stating it had high confidence in its findings regarding China, the ODNI report admitted there was some disagreement.
“The National Intelligence Officer [NIO] for Cyber assesses that China took at least some steps to undermine former President Trump’s reelection chances, primarily through social media and official public statements and media,” it said, explaining the NIO gave more weight to indications that Beijing preferred Biden, seeing him as more predictable than Trump.
The NIO also argued, with moderate confidence, that evidence suggested China increased its influence operations from June to August 2020, while calibrating its effort so as to “avoid blowback.”
Still, several former intelligence officials who spoke to VOA about the ODNI report said its prevailing view in regard to China was not surprising.
“[Former Director of National Intelligence] John Ratcliffe had the political mission of downplaying the whole Russian influence issue, with one way of doing that being to play up the idea that Chinese influence was at least as likely and significant as anything the Russians did,” said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA officer who has been critical of Trump.
Pillar, now with Georgetown University, said, in his view, the more notable conclusion from the ODNI report was how Russia sought to push Trump’s candidacy.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin clearly concluded he had gotten his money’s worth from his 2016 influence activities,” Pillar said. “Aspects of Trump administration policy toward Russia, such as some sanctions, that could be described as hardline, do not negate that fact and are still outweighed by how, in the Russian view, the many ways in which Trump divided and weakened America made his presidency a net gain for Russia.”
According to the declassified report, Russia’s efforts in the 2020 U.S. election were somewhat different than in 2016, when Russian cyber actors sought to gain access to U.S. election infrastructure.
Instead, Putin authorized “influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party,” while offering support for Trump, the report said.
“A key element of Moscow’s strategy this election cycle was its use of proxies linked to Russian intelligence to push influence narratives – including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden,” it added.
That effort, according to intelligence officials, included making use of “some close to former President Trump and his administration,” though the report itself did not divulge any names.
As for Iran, the ODNI report said Tehran “carried out a multi-pronged covert influence campaign intended to undercut former President Trump’s reelection prospects – though without directly promoting his rival.”
Both Russia and Iran also used their influence operations in an attempt to sow existing divisions in U.S. society and to undermine confidence in the democratic process.
In addition, the report warned a range of other foreign actors, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Cuba and Venezuela took steps to influence the outcome of the presidential election.
“Foreign malign influence is an enduring challenge facing our country,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in a statement Tuesday.
“Addressing this ongoing challenge requires a whole-of-government approach grounded in an accurate understanding of the problem, which the Intelligence Community, through assessments such as this one, endeavors to provide,” she added.
A separate report Tuesday, from the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, reaffirmed earlier findings that foreign adversaries failed to impact the tallying of ballots.
“We … have no evidence that any foreign government-affiliated actor prevented voting, changed votes, or disrupted the ability to tally votes or to transmit election results in a timely manner; altered any technical aspect of the voting process; or otherwise compromised the integrity of voter registration information of any ballots cast during 2020 federal elections,” the report said.
The second report also rejected claims made after the November 2020 U.S. election that foreign governments, including Venezuela, Cuba and China, were in any way in control of critical election infrastructure to manipulate the election’s outcome.
Such claims “are not credible,” the Justice Department and DHS concluded.
Some key lawmakers, though, reacted to the reports by warning it is more critical than ever for the U.S. to maintain its guard.
“The problem of foreign actors trying to influence the American electorate is not going away,” Democratic Senator John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “Given the current partisan divides in this country, [it] may find fertile ground in which to grow.”