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Trump admin curtails briefings on foreign election interference

With Election Day just nine weeks away, Trump's Office of the Director of National Intelligence is curtailing briefings on foreign election interference.
Image: U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe finishes testifying before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington
Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, finishes testifying on Capitol Hill on May 5, 2020.Gabriella Demczuk / Pool via Reuters

It was just a few weeks ago when William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, released a statement on possible foreign interference in U.S. elections, and it was striking in its assessments. According to the latest U.S. intelligence, for example, Russia is once again targeting our political system in an attempt to keep Donald Trump in power.

Common sense suggests members of Congress have plenty of questions about these findings, and they'll be eager to hear more about foreign efforts to interfere in our elections, especially with Election Day just nine weeks away. It made the latest announcement from Trump's Office of the Director of National Intelligence all the more extraordinary.

The office of the director of national intelligence will no longer offer in-person briefings to congressional intelligence committees about election security and foreign election interference, according to a congressional official briefed on the matter. The decision by the Trump administration to halt in-person briefings on foreign election interference stemmed in part from concerns over leaks, an agency official told NBC News.

NBC News' report added that the relevant congressional committees will still have access to written materials, but members will not be able to engage in Q&A with officials about the intelligence findings.

If there's a modern precedent for such a move, I'm not aware of it.

Not surprisingly, Democrats were livid in the wake of the announcement. "This is a shocking abdication of its lawful responsibility to keep the Congress currently informed, and a betrayal of the public's right to know how foreign powers are trying to subvert our democracy," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)said in a statement.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) added, "Our intelligence officials have said there's an active, ongoing assault on our democratic process from Russia. President Trump is simply using John Ratcliffe to hide the ugly truth from the American people -- that the president is again receiving the help of the Kremlin."

Joe Biden weighed in with a statement of his own. "This is not how democracy works. But it is how American national security and sovereignty are violated," the Democratic presidential nominee said, adding, "For the DNI to curtail one of the most basic duties of our nonpartisan Intelligence Community ... is nothing less than a shameless partisan manipulation to protect the personal interests of President Trump. And it is a betrayal of the oath sworn to the American people and our Constitution."

What I was curious about, however, was the response from congressional Republicans. As a rule, GOP lawmakers have earned a reputation for simply going along with whatever the White House tells them to accept, but if anything is going to get Senate Republican committee chairs' attention, it's an announcement that the administration is cutting off information to their respective panels.

And yet, there was Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chair Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) telling CNN yesterday that he doesn't much care about these developments.

For his part, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was marginally more responsible -- the Florida Republican urged DNI John Ratcliffe to "continue to fulfill" his obligations to fully brief Congress -- though Rubio went on to complain about Democrats and leaks from Capitol Hill.

It's not yet clear what kind of pressure Congress will exert in the coming days and weeks to reverse Ratcliffe's decision, but it's a safe bet that pressure, if it exists, will come from the House, not the Senate.