Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized influence operations to help Donald Trump in last November’s presidential election, according to a declassified intelligence assessment that found broad efforts by the Kremlin and Iran to shape the outcome of the race but ultimately no evidence that any foreign actor changed votes or otherwise disrupted the voting process.
The report released Tuesday from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence represents the most detailed assessment of the array of foreign threats to the 2020 election. These included efforts by Iran to undermine confidence in the vote and harm Trump’s reelection prospects as well as Moscow operations that relied on Trump’s allies to smear Joe Biden, the eventual winner.
Despite those threats, though, intelligence officials found “no indications that any foreign actor attempted to interfere in the 2020 US elections by altering any technical aspect of the voting process, including voter registration, ballot casting, vote tabulation, or reporting results.”
The report is the latest official affirmation of the integrity of the election, even as Trump supporters continue to make false claims of interference, from foreign or domestic actors, and refuse to accept Biden’s victory. Multiple courts and even Trump’s own Justice Department refuted claims of widespread fraud. The document makes clear that even while Trump has cried foul about the legitimacy of the election, intelligence officials believe Russia sought to influence people close to Trump as a way to tip the election in his favor.
The report, rejected by Russia as “unsubstantiated,” wades into the politically charged task of ferreting out which foreign adversaries supported which candidates during the 2020 election, an issue that dominated headlines last year. Trump, whose 2016 campaign benefited from hacking by Russian intelligence officers and a covert social media effort, seized on an intelligence assessment from August that said China preferred a Biden presidency — even though the same assessment also said Russia was working to boost Trump’s own candidacy by disparaging Biden.
Tuesday’s report, however, says China ultimately did not interfere on either side and “considered but did not deploy” influence operations intended to affect the outcome. US officials say they believe Beijing prioritized a stable relationship with the US and did not consider either election outcome as advantageous enough for it to risk the “blowback” that would ensue if it got caught with interfering.
The primary threats instead came from Russia and Iran, albeit with different intentions and through different means, according to intelligence officials.
In the case of Russia, the report says, Russia sought to undermine Biden’s candidacy because it viewed his presidency as opposed to the Kremlin’s interests, though it took some steps to prepare for a Democratic administration as the election neared.
The report also says Putin authorized influence operations aimed at denigrating Biden, boosting Trump, undermining confidence in the election and exacerbating social divisions in the US.
Central to that effort was reliance on proxies linked to Russian intelligence “to launder influence narratives” by using media organizations, US officials and people close to Trump to push “misleading or unsubstantiated” allegations against Biden.