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Why it matters that Team Trump lied about China, election interference

Robert O'Brien, John Ratcliffe, and Bill Barr knew the truth about foreign interference in our elections, but they chose to lie to the public.
Image: Attorney General William Barr arrives for a news conference at the White House on April 1, 2020.
Attorney General William Barr arrives for a news conference at the White House on April 1, 2020.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) this week released a declassified intelligence community assessment on foreign threats to our 2020 elections, and though it wasn't intended as a political document, the political fallout is real and significant.

As we've discussed, the top-line takeaway was important: Russia once again targeted our political system for the express purposes of giving Donald Trump power. The U.S. intelligence community similarly pointed to evidence that Russian assets turned to Trump allies -- including sitting members of Congress -- in the hopes of disseminating Kremlin-backed misinformation.

But the intelligence assessment also addressed an important question about whether China also targeted our elections in 2020. With this in mind, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded:

"We assess that China did not deploy interference efforts and considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the US presidential election. We have high confidence in this judgment. China sought stability in its relationship with the United States and did not view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk blowback if caught.... We did not identify China attempting to interfere with election infrastructure or provide funding to any candidates or parties."

The same intelligence assessment added that officials in China ultimately came to believe that "the election of either candidate [Biden or Trump] would present opportunities and challenges for China," so the risks of trying to influence the outcome wasn't worth the risks.

And yet, this is not what we heard from Team Trump during the election season. In early August, for example, then-White House National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien told reporters that U.S. intelligence officials "know" that China, "not just Russia," was in the process of targeting the U.S. political system.

A few weeks later, then-DNI John Ratcliffe told a national television audience, "China is using a massive and sophisticated influence campaign that dwarfs anything that any other country is doing." The same week, then-Attorney General Bill Barr told a different national television audience that China was more engaged than Russia in targeting our elections, adding that he was right because he'd "seen the intelligence."

In early September, Robert O'Brien returned to the subject, again insisting that China was more aggressive than Russia in interfering with U.S. elections, adding, "The Chinese have taken the most active role."

According to the U.S. intelligence community, which conducted its analyses during the Trump era, each of these prominent figures from the Trump administration simply wasn't telling the truth. They appear to have told a politically convenient lie -- brazenly and repeatedly.

Why would this matter now? Part of this relates to the simple fact that Russia attacked our political system -- again -- and by pointing the finger at the wrong foreign rival, Team Trump helped cover for the Kremlin.

But there's also the matter of accountability. Folks like Robert O'Brien, John Ratcliffe, and Bill Barr knew the truth about foreign interference in our elections, but they chose to peddle a bogus claim to the public.

The next time they claim credibility, or seek a position of public trust, this week's revelations should haunt them.