The intelligence community this week dispatched with one of the most damnable lies of the late Trump regime: that China was engaged in a concerted effort to manipulate the 2020 election on behalf of Joe Biden.
The idea behind the lie was that Beijing much preferred Biden’s policies when contrasted against then-President Donald Trump’s head-snapping collision of trade sanctions, personal sycophancy and global disengagement. That couldn’t be further from the truth, according to a group of “the Intelligence Community’s senior experts on a range of regional and functional issues.”
The view of the National Intelligence Council is that Beijing (correctly) perceived a bipartisan consensus forming against China, one that “leaves no prospect for a pro-China administration regardless of the election outcome.” Where a President Biden might be more “predictable,” he might also be more effective, according to the NIC’s assessment of China’s thinking, because Biden could better marshal coalitions to keep China in check.
(It’s worth noting that one of the contributors to the report, the national intelligence officer for cyber, believes China would have indeed preferred Trump's removal from office and may have titrated its public messaging to produce that outcome. But there is no evidence that Beijing behaved any differently than other foreign actors who try to publicly influence American politics.)
There are three reasons why this lie was so harmful.
Reason No. 1: At a time when the intelligence showed that Trump was not the primary beneficiary of covert influence campaigns, his administration manipulated the national security bureaucracy to marshal sympathy for the former president. This likely diminished the morale of the senior intelligence service and the collectors of the intelligence who risked their lives during a pandemic to find out the truth.
There is a throughline between this lie and the Big Lie at the heart of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Reason No. 2: The gamed intelligence was used to try to tilt the election in Trump’s favor, before and after the actual vote. On Sept. 2, Attorney General William Barr told CNN that it was China, not Russia, that was engaging in the most egregious efforts to swing the American election, implying — because of the context of the question — that these efforts were nefarious, covert and happening without full cognizance. Why China, Mr. Barr? “Because I’ve seen the intelligence. That’s what I've concluded.” You, and no one else, I respond.
When, after the election, Trump and his supporters mounted an effort to overturn the will of the American people, they could point back to these assessments to suggest that China managed to change votes on behalf of Biden. There is a throughline between this lie and the Big Lie at the heart of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Reason No. 3: Anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States, whipped up by the administration after Covid-19 reached the U.S., catalyzed resentment and hatred toward Asian Americans, leading to a campaign of discrimination, violence and killings that continues today.
The administration made no real effort to separate their own lies and wishful prejudices from the downstream effects on Americans of Asian descent, which was simply cruel. One of the reasons why seasoned diplomats pay such careful attention to language is that they know how easy it is for descriptive phrases assigning an evil to an entire country to have deleterious effects on innocent people elsewhere.
Paradoxically, Trump’s lies would have made it harder to get anything done with China during his second term. And because the lies may have hardened American attitudes toward Beijing, they might impose constraints on Biden’s repertoire of tools to deal with the real threat from the government of China, which has nothing to do with elections and everything to do with the outward projection of the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology and the People's Liberation Army’s military might.
In short: Trump politicized intelligence at a cost to our national security and at a significant cost to the bodies, minds and lives of Asian Americans. Add that to his legacy.