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Pssst—the Russians and Chinese Are Still Trying to Interfere in the 2020 Election

Foreign election interference didn't stop when the Mueller report came out.
June 26, 2020
Pssst—the Russians and Chinese Are Still Trying to Interfere in the 2020 Election

With all the talk over COVID-19’s effect on the November elections—and the president’s false claims that mail-in voting is fraudulent—it’s easy to forget what former Special Counsel Robert Mueller warned Congress was the biggest threat to the 2020 election: Russian interference. “It wasn’t a single attempt,” he told two house committees last July. “They are doing it while we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.”

And a year later, they’re still doing it. But with more help.

According to the Washington Post, at least two other foreign adversaries have joined Russia’s attack on American elections: Iran and China.

If you recall, the Mueller report concluded that the big-ticket items in Russia’s interference were (1) that they hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s servers, stole information, and leaked it shortly before the November election. And (2) that they planted lies on the Internet in order to dupe voters into casting ballots based on false information or staying home on election day altogether.

Both menaces are still in play for 2020.

As for hacking, Iran reportedly tried to dig into the Gmail accounts of the Trump campaign’s staff, albeit unsuccessfully. (Iran is upset with Trump over his ordered killing of Qasem Soleimani in January and for pulling out of a nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration.) But most of the interference so far seeks to benefit Trump. China has tried to hack into accounts belonging to Joe Biden’s staff (it did the same to the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, John McCain, and Mitt Romney).

Last July FBI Director Christopher Wray stated at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that, “despite sanctions and other efforts to deter such actions,” Russia is still attempting to interfere, too.

In a classified briefing to House Members in February of this year, intelligence officials warned lawmakers that Vladimir Putin’s goal—once again—is to help Donald Trump get elected. The day after the hearing, Trump publicly berated outgoing acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire for authorizing it.

(Maguire—a retired three-star admiral and former Navy SEAL was replaced by Richard Grenell, whose chief qualification is being a die-hard Trump supporter on Twitter.)

On the misinformation side, the Russians have shifted tactics for this election. Working from servers located in the United States, Russia-linked accounts are now spreading conspiracies and disinformation created by Americans—rather than inventing the theories themselves. This is their attempt to evade social media companies’ policies regarding “inauthentic speech.”

“They aren’t looking for their own accounts to go viral anymore, because it draws attention to themselves,” former CIA analyst Cindy Otis told the New York Times. “The bulk of their approach is to slip into existing narratives.” The Russian strategy continues to center around stoking internal division and distrust amongst Americans, including around Black Lives Matters protests, white nationalist violence, a false counternarrative to Russia’s established interference in the 2016 election, and coronavirus fears.

The new tactic may be working. On June 18, during a hearing before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, a representative from Twitter said that the company had not seen any “concerted platform manipulation efforts.” Facebook’s representative similarly claimed that, with over 40 teams of people working on election integrity, it has not seen any “coordinated inauthentic behavior” by the Russians to date.

Committee Republicans were so concerned about foreign interference that they declined to participate in the House hearings.

Between that maneuver and the hiring of Grenell, our adversaries have been all but told that it is open season on the 2020 election. So long as their efforts benefit Trump.

Kimberly Wehle

Kimberly Wehle is a contributor to The Bulwark. She served as an assistant U.S. attorney and an associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. She is currently a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. An ABC News legal contributor, she is the author of three books with HarperCollins: How to Read the Constitution—and Why, What You Need to Know About Voting—and Why, and, most recently, How to Think Like a Lawyer and Why—A Common-Sense Guide to Everyday Dilemmas. Her new book, Pardon Power: How the Pardon System Works—and Why, is forthcoming in September 2024 from Woodhall Press. @kimwehle.