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Russia backs Trump’s reelection, and he fears Democrats will exploit its support

Joseph Maguire was berated by the president after a briefing on Russian threats to the election process.
Erin Schaff/New York Times/File
Joseph Maguire was berated by the president after a briefing on Russian threats to the election process.

WASHINGTON — Intelligence officials warned House lawmakers last week that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Trump reelected, five people familiar with the matter said, a disclosure to Congress that angered Trump, who complained that Democrats would use it against him.

The day after the Feb. 13 briefing to lawmakers, Trump berated Joseph Maguire, the outgoing acting director of national intelligence, for allowing it to take place, people familiar with the exchange said. Trump cited the presence in the briefing of Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, who led the impeachment proceedings against him, as a particular irritant.

During the briefing to the House Intelligence Committee, Trump’s allies challenged the conclusions, arguing that Trump has been tough on Russia and strengthened European security. Some intelligence officials viewed the briefing as a tactical error, saying that had the official who delivered the conclusion spoken less pointedly or left it out, they would have avoided angering the Republicans.

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That intelligence official, Shelby Pierson, is an aide to Maguire who has a reputation of delivering intelligence in somewhat blunt terms. The president announced Wednesday that he was replacing Maguire with Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany and long an aggressively vocal Trump supporter.

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Though some current and former officials speculated that the briefing may have played a role in the removal of Maguire, who had told people in recent days that he believed he would remain in the job, two administration officials said the timing was coincidental. Grenell had been in discussions with the administration about taking on new roles, they said, and Trump had never felt a kinship with Maguire.

Spokeswomen for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and its election security office declined to comment. A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A Democratic House intelligence committee official called the Feb. 13 briefing an important update about “the integrity of our upcoming elections” and said that members of both parties attended, including Representative Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the committee.

Trump has long accused the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s 2016 interference as the work of a “deep-state” conspiracy intent on undermining the validity of his election. Intelligence officials feel burned by their experience after the last election, where their work became subject of intense political debate and is now a focus of a Justice Department investigation.

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Pierson, officials said, was delivering the conclusion of multiple intelligence agencies, not her own opinion. The Washington Post first reported the Oval Office confrontation between Trump and Maguire.

The intelligence community issued an assessment in early 2017 that President Vladimir Putin personally ordered an influence campaign in the previous year’s election and developed “a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” But Republicans have long argued that Moscow’s campaign was designed to sow chaos, not aid Trump specifically.

And some Republicans have accused the intelligence agencies of opposing Trump, but intelligence officials reject those allegations. They fiercely guard their work as nonpartisan, saying it is the only way to ensure its validity.

Though intelligence officials have previously informed lawmakers that Russia’s interference campaign was ongoing, last week’s briefing did contain what appeared to be new information, including that Russia intends to interfere with the ongoing Democratic primaries as well as the general election.

The Russians have been preparing — and experimenting — for the 2020 election, undeterred by American efforts to thwart them but aware that they needed a new playbook of as-yet-undetectable methods.