Trump chides FBI chief for saying Russia seeks to defeat Joe Biden

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday warned that Russia is interfering in the 2020 US presidential elections with a steady stream of misinformation aimed at Democrat Joe Biden as well as sapping Americans' confidence in the election process.
VIDEO: REUTERS
Wray testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee.
Wray testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - US President Donald Trump ridiculed FBI Director Christopher Wray for telling Congress that Russia is seeking to hurt Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential campaign through social media and influence operations. 

China "is a FAR greater threat than Russia, Russia, Russia," Trump said in a tweet Thursday evening (Sept 17). 

Hours earlier, Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee that Moscow is carrying out efforts to sow discord in the US "primarily to denigrate Vice-President Biden and what the Russians see as an anti-Russia establishment."

It’s an assessment sharply at odds with Trump, who still dismisses as a hoax the intelligence community’s finding that Russia worked to help him win the White House in 2016. 

"Russia continues to try to influence our elections, primarily through what we call malign foreign influence," Wray told lawmakers.

But US national security agencies haven’t yet seen Russia trying to break into election infrastructure as it did in 2016 when it hacked voting databases, he added. 

"Chris, you don’t see any activity from China, even though it is a FAR greater threat than Russia, Russia, Russia," Trump said in the tweet.

"They will both, plus others, be able to interfere in our 2020 Election with our totally vulnerable Unsolicited (Counterfeit?) Ballot Scam. Check it out!"

In fact, Wray testified that China is among adversaries that are trying to interfere in the presidential campaign, primarily through spreading disinformation.

US agencies previously focused on "efforts to combat malign foreign influence focused solely on the threat posed by Russia," Wray said, but now the Federal Bureau of Investigation is "widening its aperture" leading into the Nov 3 election "to confront malign foreign operations of China, Iran, and other global adversaries."

In prepared testimony, Wray said, "This year's election cycle, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, provides ample opportunity for hostile foreign actors to conduct disinformation campaigns and foreign influence operations in an effort to mislead, sow discord and, ultimately, undermine confidence in our democratic institutions and values."

Under questioning, Wray declined to say that the anarchist movement Antifa, cited often by Trump and Attorney-General William Barr, is the biggest domestic threat.

"Antifa is a real thing. It's not a fiction," Wray said. "But it's not an organisation or a structure. We understand it to be more of a movement or maybe you could call it an ideology."

Wray said the FBI is focused on stopping violence that is being carried out by individuals affiliated with both left-wing and right-wing groups, including from people who identify themselves as Antifa supporters.

WOLF ABSENT DESPITE SUBPOENA

The hearing opened with controversy, as Acting Homeland Secretary Chad Wolf declined to appear even after the Democratic-led committee subpoenaed him. Wolf has cited his pending nomination for the secretary's position and the tradition of nominees not commenting before their Senate confirmation hearings.

In a statement on Wednesday, Ken Cuccinelli, who is serving as Wolf's deputy, denounced "this transparent and brazen attempt at Beltway political theatre."

Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the committee's chairman, called Wolf's absence "an appropriate metaphor for the Trump administration's dereliction of duty" on homeland security issues. He noted Wolf has made public comments, including in appearances on Fox News.

Brian Murphy, who was the Department of Homeland Security's intelligence chief until he was demoted, has filed a whistle-blower complaint asserting that Trump administration officials suppressed intelligence on Russian election interference and the threat from white supremacists.

Murphy said the department's chief of staff sent him an email directing him to stop dissemination of intelligence products about Russian disinformation efforts because it "made the president look bad," according to the complaint filed with the DHS inspector general.

Wolf has said Murphy fabricated his allegations after he was demoted for conducting surveillance of reporters covering protests.