US counterspy chief warns Russia, China, Iran trying to meddle in 2020 election

VIDEO: REUTERS
Trump speaks to the media on the South Lawn of the White House, July 31, 2020.
Trump speaks to the media on the South Lawn of the White House, July 31, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (AFP, REUTERS) - China has boosted its efforts to influence the US presidential election in November and wants President Donald Trump to lose because it sees him as "unpredictable," a top US intelligence official said on Friday (Aug 7).

"We assess that China prefers that President Trump - whom Beijing sees as unpredictable - does not win re-election," said William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

"China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China's interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China," Evanina said in a statement.

He pointed to China's criticism of Trump's handling of the coronavirus epidemic, of the US closure of China's Houston consulate, and of the US administration's stances on Chinese actions in Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

"Beijing recognises that all of these efforts might affect the presidential race," Evanina said.

He also warned that Russia and Iran were also trying to interfere in the 2020 presidential election, with Russia already trying to undercut Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

He said the three countries were using online disinformation and other means to try to influence voters, stir up disorder and undermine American voters' confidence in the democratic process.

President Donald Trump, asked at a news conference in New Jersey how he would respond to interference in the Nov. 3 vote, said: "We're going to watch all of them, we have to be very careful."

He added that he believed Russia, China and Iran all wanted him to lose the election.

Trump repeated his refrain that the biggest risk to the integrity of the election was mail-in ballots.

"It's much easier for them to forge ballots and send them in, it's much easier for them to cheat with universal mail-in ballots," he said, referring to foreign countries.

Trump has been attacking the idea of voting by mail ever since a resurgence in coronavirus infections made it less likely that people will want to vote in person in November, saying despite research to the contrary that mail-in voting is vulnerable to fraud.

Multiple reviews by US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia acted to boost Trump's 2016 campaign and undercut his rival Hillary Clinton's chances in that election.

Trump has long bristled at that finding, which Russia denies.

Evanina warned on Friday that Russia is already going after former Vice President Biden and what it regards as an anti-Russia US "establishment".

In a statement, the Biden campaign said Trump "publicly and repeatedly invited, emboldened, and even tried to coerce foreign interference in American elections".

Evanina said Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russia Ukrainian politician, has been "spreading claims about corruption - including through publicised leaked phone calls" to undermine Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party.

Trump supporters in the US Senate have launched investigations questioning Biden's son Hunter's involvement in alleged business activities in Ukraine.

Evanina said "Kremlin-linked actors" also are trying to "boost President Trump's candidacy via social media and Russian television".

He said his agency assessed that China would prefer that Trump not win re-election, because Beijing regards him as too unpredictable.

Evanina said Iran is likely to use online tactics such as spreading disinformation to discredit US institutions and President Trump and to stir up US voters' discontent.

The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Mark Warner, thanked Evanina for his warning in a statement and added that all Americans "should endeavour to prevent outside actors from being able to interfere in our elections, influence our politics, and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions".

Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Trump's re-election campaign, insisted that Trump has been "tougher on Russia than any administration in history". "We don't need or want foreign interference, and President Trump will beat Joe Biden fair and square," Murtaugh added.

Many officials who oversee US election technology and outside security experts now worry less about hacking in the elections than about misinformation and logistics such as a shortage of poll workers and slowdowns at the US postal service.