Trump Spy Chief Stirs Dispute Over China Election-Meddling Views

President Donald Trump’s spy chief is considering holding up a report to Congress on foreign efforts to sway the Nov. 3 election, arguing that China should be cited more prominently for its attempts to influence American voters, according to people familiar with the matter.

The disagreement that’s dividing U.S. intelligence officials and analysts has prompted Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe to weigh withholding his certification of the report that’s supposed to be delivered to U.S. lawmakers on Friday, the people said.

Ratcliffe wants the report to more fully reflect the national security threat that China’s efforts posed, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity owing to the sensitivity of the information.

The report was set to go to Capitol Hill as Trump continues to reject the outcome of the presidential election won by Democrat Joe Biden. Trump has claimed without proof that wide-scale voter fraud cost him the race, with a number of fellow Republicans still refusing to recognize Biden as president-elect. The intelligence report wouldn’t deal with allegations of domestic fraud, such as in ballot-counting.

Ratcliffe and other Trump appointees — including National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr — suggested over the summer that China posed a bigger election threat than Russia even though intelligence assessments at the time didn’t support that assertion. In recent months they have issued a barrage of warnings that China is covertly attempting to sway American politics and culture from state legislatures to Hollywood movies and from college campuses to Disney theme parks.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded before the election that Russia was seeking to interfere with this year’s vote, reprising its 2016 effort to undermine Democrat Hillary Clinton and help Trump win the presidency. Officials at the time also cited China and Iran for their attempts at interference, with his supporters saying those nations would seek to hurt Trump rather than help him.

In September, FBI Director Christopher Wray focused on Russia in an appearance before a House committee, saying it was seeking to hurt Biden’s presidential campaign through social media and influence operations. Although Wray testified that China also was trying to interfere, primarily by spreading disinformation, Trump chided Wray in a tweet, saying China “is a FAR greater threat than Russia, Russia, Russia.”

Ratcliffe’s concerns are fueled by fresh intelligence that provides a fuller picture of what China’s leaders either did or planned to do to keep Trump from being re-elected, the people said.

That information, some of it in Mandarin and gathered in the weeks before and after the election, is still being assessed, one of the people said. It includes social media campaigns, such as attempts to amplify messages that Trump is a white supremacist, the person said.

China has previously rejected the Trump administration claims as false. The Chinese embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.

The dispute over China’s role comes even as the U.S. government is trying to assess the damage from a devastating hacking attack on government agencies attributed to Russia.

Some analysts say the new intelligence will show that China’s effort to influence the U.S. election was far more extensive than previously reported by spy agencies over the last year, the people said.

Others, though, argue that China took minimal efforts or never acted on its plans.

The report is due in classified form to lawmakers 45 days after the election, with an unclassified version set to be released to the public weeks afterward. It summarizes intelligence gathered by agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Before taking over in May as director of national intelligence, Ratcliffe was a Republican congressman from Texas who emerged as one of Trump’s fiercest defenders during the president’s impeachment inquiry last year.

A former federal prosecutor with no previous intelligence agency background, Ratcliffe was originally chosen to replace former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats last year. But he withdrew from consideration following public scrutiny of his qualifications, and his denunciation of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller at a House hearing.

Tensions over the report due this week reflect the debate that played out before the election over which U.S. adversary bore greater responsibility for attempts to tamper with U.S. democratic institutions. In September, O’Brien asserted that China — not Russia — “has the most massive program to influence the United States politically.”

Yet a week later, a Homeland Security Department official accused Trump administration appointees, including O’Brien, of attempting to suppress intelligence on Russian election interference while promoting China as the prime threat.

In a whistle-blower complaint, Brian Murphy, Homeland Security’s former intelligence chief, said he was ordered to stop providing intelligence assessments on Russian election meddling and start reporting instead on interference activities by China and Iran.

— With assistance by Nick Wadhams, and Chris Strohm

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