An explosive whistleblower complaint filed by a senior Department of Homeland Security aide this week has shed new light on efforts by President Donald Trump’s administration to deceive Congress and suppress and manipulate intelligence about Russian political interference and the related threat of white supremacy in advance of the 2020 election.
In the complaint, Brian Murphy, the former head of DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, laid out a damning pattern of behavior by top Trump appointees ― most notably Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and his second-in-command, Ken Cuccinelli ― to distort or block intelligence reports that could undermine Trump’s political objectives or reflect poorly on a president who has openly courted both the Kremlin and far-right extremists in America.
Murphy’s complaint is a shocking document that would upend any other administration in recent memory. But it’s also just another data point in an incendiary emerging story: Russia is clearly trying to influence the presidential election, and the Trump administration has doggedly tried to keep both Congress and the public in the dark about those efforts. Democratic lawmakers have also tried to sound the alarm but have been handcuffed by what they say is the Trump administration’s unnecessary classification of election security intelligence, particularly with regard to the Russian threat.
Last month, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) issued a dire warning in a Washington Post op-ed after reviewing classified material that he described as “more chilling” than anything special counsel Robert S. Mueller III turned up in his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“The warning lights are flashing red. America’s elections are under attack,” Blumenthal wrote. “[T]the Trump administration is keeping the truth about a grave, looming threat to democracy hidden from the American people.”
Murphy, a Marine veteran and former FBI special agent who said he was responsible for all intelligence activities at the Department of Homeland Security from March 2018 until being reassigned last month, has produced some of the strongest evidence to date that Trump has politicized elements of the intelligence community in ways that security experts and members of Congress say put the country at great risk.
In his whistleblower complaint, Murphy stated that he filed two Office of the Inspector General reports that seemingly went nowhere about “attempted censorship of intelligence analysis.” He also made numerous other internal complaints. In March and April, for example, he said he submitted six internal complaints to Kash Patel, the acting deputy director for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, about the “improper administration of an intelligence program with respect to Russian disinformation efforts within the United States.”
Patel, a former staffer for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), played a key role in a Republican effort to discredit Mueller’s Russia probe and the FBI’s and Justice Department’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s Russia ties. It’s unclear if Patel responded to Murphy’s concerns.
In May, however, Wolf told Murphy to “cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the United States,” according to the whistleblower complaint. Wolf told Murphy those instructions came directly from White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien, according to Murphy, who said he refused to comply because “doing so would put the country in substantial and specific danger.”
Hiding The Truth
Even before Murphy’s complaint, it was clear that DHS was suppressing intelligence about Russian election interference. In July, the agency withheld publication of a bulletin warning law enforcement agencies about a Russian disinformation plot to “denigrate” the mental health of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, according to a recent ABC News report.
Trump and his propagandists were already belittling Biden’s health, and an hour after the bulletin was submitted to the agency’s legislative and public affairs office for review, DHS chief of staff John Gountanis intervened to stop publication. The bulletin never circulated.
That incident is almost certainly the one described in Murphy’s complaint where he alleges that Gountanis directed him not to disseminate an “intelligence notification regarding Russian disinformation efforts” until clearing it with Wolf. On July 8, Murphy said, he met with Wolf, who told him that the intelligence notification should be “held” because it “made the President look bad.” After Murphy protested, according to his complaint, Wolf excluded him from meetings about the notification, a draft of which was ultimately produced that Murphy felt minimized the actions of Russia.
In early August, intelligence officials presented classified information to Congress and presidential campaigns ― the material that “shocked” Blumenthal ― about Russia’s efforts to undermine the election and American democracy. Russia, the information indicated, had targeted Biden in a scheme the U.S. government’s chief counterintelligence official, William Evanina, hinted at in an “election threat update” he released Aug. 7.
“We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment,’” Evanina said.
Three weeks later, however, Trump’s newly appointed director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, announced that the intelligence community would halt in-person election security briefings to Congress and instead provide only written reports. Ratcliffe justified this decision by saying it would be easier to avoid leaks and prevent information from being “politicized.”
The move was met with outrage by congressional Democrats. In a joint statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif) called it a “betrayal of the public’s right to know how foreign powers are trying to subvert our democracy. This intelligence belongs to the American people, not the agencies which are its custodian. And the American people have both the right and the need to know that another nation, Russia, is trying to help decide who their president should be.”
John Cohen, a former undersecretary for intelligence at DHS, told ABC News that “by refusing to brief Congress on a significant threat facing this country, administration officials are placing this country at grave risk.″
Given Murphy’s allegations that Wolf and Cuccinelli ― whom the Government Accountability Office determined were illegally installed in their positions ― told him to manipulate written intelligence reports, the danger is likely worse than imagined. With less than two months to go until the Nov. 3 election, Russia continues to target Biden and undermine U.S. democracy, sometimes with Trump’s assistance.
Evidence In The Open
Beyond the warnings from Murphy and Blumenthal, several Russian efforts to disrupt the election have entered public view on their own. Facebook recently took down accounts and pages associated with a Russian influence operation posing as an independent news outlet. The operation published content that investigators at Graphika, a social media analytics firm, described as “an attempt to build a left-wing audience and steer it away from Biden’s campaign, in the same way that the original IRA [Internet Research Agency] tried to depress progressive and minority support for Hillary Clinton in 2016.” The Daily Beast broke news this week that the same Russian operation, patterned after the Russian-based IRA, an organization of professional trolls active in the 2016 election, tried and failed to infiltrate left-wing media outlets such as Jacobin, Truthout and In These Times.
CNN reported Wednesday that journalist Bob Woodward revealed in his new book that “the NSA and CIA have classified evidence the Russians had placed malware in the election registration systems of at least two Florida counties, St. Lucie and Washington. While there was no evidence the malware had been activated, Woodward writes, it was sophisticated and could erase voters in specific districts.”
On Thursday, Reuters reported that Microsoft recently alerted SKDKnickerbocker, one of Biden’s main election campaign advisory firms, that suspected Russian state-backed hackers had gone after the company with a failed phishing attack to obtain staff passwords and made other attempts at infiltration. The Washington-based firm has close ties with many prominent Democrats.
Meanwhile, Trump and his associates are knowingly and openly participating in a Kremlin influence campaign to tarnish Biden and his son Hunter as being involved in corrupt dealings in Ukraine. Trump’s attempt last year to strong-arm Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing an investigation into the unfounded allegations against Biden led to Trump’s impeachment. In his Aug. 7 statement about election threats, Evanina, the intelligence community’s top election security official, issued a clear warning about the ongoing influence campaign against Biden.
“[P]ro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption ― including through publicizing leaked phone calls ― to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party,” Evanina wrote.
A week later, Trump retweeted edited audio from one of the leaked tapes that U.S. intelligence officials had flagged as part of Derkach and the Russian government’s disinformation campaign. It was of a purported 2016 call between then-Vice President Biden and then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The tapes contain edited fragments of unauthenticated conversations. Poroshenko has rejected them as a fabrication by pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.
Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who directed efforts to get Zelensky to announce an investigation into Biden, has met at least three times with Derkach, an enigmatic political figure who graduated from a spy academy in Moscow in 1993 and whose father was a longtime KGB officer. On his podcast, Giuliani promoted Derkach’s claims about Biden, which seek to tie the presidential rival to George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist whose support for anti-corruption and pro-democracy initiatives in former Eastern Bloc countries has made him an enemy of the Kremlin.
Republicans also consider Soros, who has spent millions of dollars on liberal causes, a political foe — so much so that in 2017, right-wing congressional Republicans such as Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Ted Cruz (Texas) joined forces with Russia-backed politicians in Eastern Europe to oppose Soros.
Giuliani also worked closely with One America News, a pro-Trump propaganda network, to amplify the Derkach disinformation campaign. OAN conducted interviews with Giuliani and Derkach. And OAN propagandists, such as Jack Posobiec, a far-right protégé of Trump aide and convicted felon Roger Stone, generated additional material in an attempt to link Democrats to corruption in Ukraine and to Soros.
The U.S. Treasury Department on Thursday designated Derkach “an active Russian agent for over a decade” who has “close connections with Russian intelligence services” and placed sanctions on him for running an “influence campaign” against Biden.
“Derkach waged a covert influence campaign centered on cultivating false and unsubstantiated narratives concerning U.S. officials in the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election,” according to a Treasury Department statement. “Derkach’s unsubstantiated narratives were pushed in Western media through coverage of press conferences and other news events, including interviews and statements.”
A Confluence Of Bad
It can sometimes be hard to separate a Russian propaganda operation from Trump sowing discord for his own purposes. Often they are inseparable. Consider Trump’s “useful idiot” approach to far-right extremism in America. By appealing to racism, authoritarianism and conspiratorial thinking to rally his base, Trump has deepened divisions in the country and accelerated political radicalization.
The Trump administration has also consistently whitewashed far-right extremist violence, which federal law enforcement considers the top domestic terrorism threat. Murphy alleges in his complaint that this dangerous practice was still happening at DHS only a few months before the 2020 election. From May through July of this year, he said, Wolf and Cuccinelli unsuccessfully pressured him and other officials to play down the threat of white supremacy in an important “homeland threat assessment” report and instead stoke unfounded fears about “antifa” and anarchists, a stance that lined up with Trump’s misleading “political rhetoric” about left-wing extremism, according to the complaint.
But this also matched Russian disinformation designed to stoke chaos and polarization. At a press conference in August, for example, Chanel Rion, the chief White House correspondent for One America News, brought up antifa.com, a mysterious website whose owner had redirected it to point to Biden’s website. Rion used this as an excuse to ask Trump whether Biden should “publicly denounce the antifa as a domestic terrorist organization.” Trump leaped at the opportunity to change the subject from COVID-19 and instead fearmonger about leftist extremism. Yahoo News later traced the antifa.com site to Russia.
Another OAN reporter, Kristian Brunovich Rouz, was on the Kremlin payroll and has falsely linked Democrats to antifa (a loosely organized movement of anti-fascist and anti-racist activists) and pushed disinformation about Soros, including accusing him of secretly financing migrant caravans. When Trump suggested in June that an elderly peace activist shoved violently to the ground by Buffalo, New York, police was a member of antifa, he was repeating a baseless conspiracy theory that Rouz broadcast on OAN earlier that day.
After Murphy refused to alter his threat assessment to demonize anti-fascists for Trump’s far-right political purposes, Wolf and Cuccinelli tried to block the report, he said. But this was only the latest instance of Trump propaganda running alongside Russian disinformation efforts. Trump’s “white grievance” politics have frequently intersected with Russian disinformation during his presidency.
Murphy also alleged that Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary from December 2017 to April 2019, lied repeatedly under oath to Congress about the number of “known or suspected terrorists” (KSTs) entering the U.S. from Mexico. Murphy put the tally at “no more than three individuals.” He had said Nielsen testified to Congress in December 2018 that DHS had prevented 3,755 KSTs from entering the U.S. via the southern border. However, Nielsen did not use that figure in her testimony. In a supplemental statement, Murphy alleged that she provided that number to Congress in other ways.
In October 2018, Nielsen’s aides unsuccessfully pressured Murphy’s office to have intelligence assessments support a Trump administration “policy argument” that KSTs were pouring across the border. At the time, Nielsen was briefing Trump on the progress of a caravan of migrants headed toward the U.S. from Central America. While Trump ranted on Twitter about “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” arriving, pro-Trump propagandists began spreading a conspiracy theory that Soros ― the lead bogeyman in anti-Semitic Russian disinformation schemes ― had financed the caravan.
Posobiec, who works openly with neo-Nazis and has routinely downplayed Russian political interference while being heavily promoted by both the Russian government and Trump, implied on Twitter that Soros had rented RVs for migrants, according to a USA Today investigation. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who associates with a Holocaust denier who has participated in Russian election interference efforts, suggested on Twitter that Soros had given cash to caravan members. After Donald Trump Jr. retweeted Gaetz, the disinformation went viral. A few days later, 11 people were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The man charged in the massacre is a neo-Nazi gunman who allegedly believed Soros and other Jews had organized the caravan to bring violent “invaders” across the border to kill white people. Four days after the massacre, Trump again suggested that Soros was financing the caravan.
The caravan disinformation campaign kicked into high gear as the midterm elections approached in 2018. Two years later, as the country hurtles toward a momentous presidential election, antifa and the Black Lives Matter movement have become the designated foils for Trump and the Kremlin’s white fright propaganda.
American voters still know far too little about how Russia is undermining democracy to benefit Trump. But they know enough now to know that Trump is along for the ride.