Already, there are a lot of similarities between the 2016 and 2020 elections — infighting between supporters of the Democratic candidates, an electoral map advantageous to the Republican Party — though a major new symmetry was reported by the New York Times on Thursday. Intelligence officials have reportedly warned the House that Russia is already interfering in the 2020 contest, including actions to disrupt the Democratic primary. But unlike last cycle, when Trump publicly and openly invited Russian meddling on his behalf, the president wasn’t so thrilled that the information was out in the open this time.
According to the Times, Trump “berated” the outgoing acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire when he found out that Shelby Pierson, the intel official responsible for election security, had disclosed the information to lawmakers on February 13 — and was particularly upset that his impeachment adversary Adam Schiff was in the room. (It appears the president was hoping the House Intelligence Committee chairman would skip the crucial briefing.) Sources who spoke with the Times state that Trump was furious because he was concerned that Democrats, and Schiff specifically, would “weaponize” this support from Russia.
While lawmakers from both parties reportedly asked the intelligence community to provide the material that resulted in the determination, Republicans in the meeting pushed back on the intelligence community’s takeaway: “At the House briefing, Representative Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who has been considered for the director’s post, was among the Republicans who challenged the conclusion about Russia’s support for the president. Mr. Stewart insisted that Mr. Trump has aggressively confronted Moscow, providing anti-tank weapons to Ukraine for its war against Russian-backed separatists and strengthening the NATO alliance with new resources, according to two people briefed on the meeting.” That analysis, however, ignores Trump’s great affinity for the Russian president and his reported acceptance of Russian conspiracy theories on Ukraine and the 2016 election because “Putin told me.”
Reports on the briefing also help place in context the sudden removal of Joseph Maguire as acting Director of National Intelligence: According to the Washington Post, Trump erroneously believed that Schiff had been given the information exclusively. Furious over an exchange that did not happen, Trump then cut Maguire from the DNI position, according to NBC News.
With Richard Grenell — a loyalist with no intelligence experience — now leading the intelligence community, former officials in the field fear that the new DNI will tailor his role to meet the president’s demands. “Trump is trying to whitewash or rewrite the narrative about Russia’s involvement in the election,” former intelligence official Andrea Kendall-Taylor told the Times. “Grenell’s appointment suggests he is really serious about that.”