Democrats consider subpoenas after Trump's intelligence director scraps in-person briefings

'That's a decision that will have to go to the speaker,' intelligence chairman says of whether to try and force top Trump intel officials to comply

Griffin Connolly
Sunday 30 August 2020 20:15 BST
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Louise Thomas

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Democrats are fighting back hard against the Trump administration's decision to cease delivering verbal briefings to politicians on securing the 2020 US elections.

A subpoena "is certainly one of the tools that we may use" to compel intelligence officials to testify about election security concerns, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said in an interview with CNN on Sunday.

"I can't speak for what decision ultimately we'll make. That's a decision that will have to go to the speaker," Mr Schiff said, deferring any action on subpoenas to the authority of his fellow California Democrat, Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Ms Pelosi has been unsparing in her criticism of Republicans' approach to election security, branding Donald Trump and his allies in Congress "enemies of the state" for making statements that have undermined Americans' faith in the results of the 2020 elections.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence informed lawmakers on Friday that it will continue to provide written briefings to the House and Senate intelligence panels but will not guarantee in-person ones, CNN reported previously.

John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, defended that decision on Fox News on Sunday, saying he had grown exasperated with Democratic lawmakers leaking "classified information" from oral briefings to various news outlets.

"Within minutes of one of those briefings ending, a number of members of Congress went to a number of different outlets and leaked classified information for political purposes," Mr Ratcliffe alleged.

"To create a narrative that simply isn't true, that somehow Russia is a greater national security threat than China," Mr Ratcliffe said.

He added: "I don't mean to minimize Russia. They are a serious national security threat, but day in, day out, the threats that we face from China are significantly greater. ... Anyone who says otherwise is just politicizing intelligence for their own narrative."

Denying lawmakers in-person briefings means they cannot ask US intelligence officials tough questions, Mr Schiff has indicated.

The cessation of verbal, back-and-forth briefings highlights the breakdown of trust between Democratic politicians and Mr Trump's national security and intelligence political appointees. The ODNI has been heavily politicised during the last couple years of Mr Trump's administration as the president has sought to push back against the narrative — confirmed by the consensus opinion of the major US intelligence agencies — that Russia sought to boost his campaign in 2016.

"This intelligence paid for by taxpayers doesn't belong to Donald Trump. It doesn't belong to the intelligence agencies. It belongs to the American people. The agencies are merely the custodians of that information," Mr Schiff said on Sunday.

"The American people ought to know what Russia is doing. They ought to know their president is unwilling to stand up to Vladimir Putin," Mr Schiff said, referring to Mr Trump's counterpart in the Kremlin.

On Saturday, Mr Trump's Democratic opponent this November, former Vice President Joe Biden, denounced the move to cancel oral briefings on election security as "nothing less than a shameless partisan manipulation to protect the personal interests of President Trump."

Mr Biden and congressional Democrats have advocated for the federal government to send billions of dollars in additional aid to states to help secure their election systems as man of them roll out unprecedented mail-in ballot initiatives to reduce voters' exposure to Covid-19.

A Republican bill to provide relief from the coronavirus pandemic did not include any money for election security assistance.

Mr Biden suggested in a statement on Saturday that the ODNI's latest decision is a malign effort to conceal information from the public that further demonstrates the GOP's unseriousness about Russia election meddling.

“There can be only one conclusion: President Trump is hoping Vladimir Putin will once more boost his candidacy ... And he does not want the American people to know the steps Vladimir Putin is taking," Mr Biden said.

Security sources have said they believe the Kremlin wants Mr Trump to win re-election in November, and has also said they believe China favours Joe Biden as he is less unpredictable, something Republicans have seized on to boost their candidate.

In July Bill Evanina, the top intelligence official in charge of election security, issued a statement saying: "We assess that China prefers that President Trump -- whom Beijing sees as unpredictable -- does not win re-election.

"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."

He added: "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'.

"This is consistent with Moscow's public criticism of him when he was Vice President for his role in the Obama Administration's policies on Ukraine and its support for the anti-Putin opposition inside Russia."

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