The statement from William Evanina is believed to be the most pointed declaration by the US intelligence community linking the Kremlin to efforts to get President Trump re-elected.
The top US counterintelligence official has warned that Russia, China and Iran will all try to interfere in the 2020 presidential election, with Russia already trying to undercut presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
In an unusual public statement, William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said on Friday that those countries were using online disinformation and other means to try to influence voters, stir up disorder and undermine American voters' confidence in the democratic process.
Foreign adversaries also may try to interfere with US election systems by trying to sabotage the voting process, stealing election data, or calling into question the validity of election results.
"It would be difficult for our adversaries to interfere with or manipulate voting results at scale," Evanina insisted.
Russia wants Trump to stay
Multiple reviews by US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia acted to boost now-President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and undercut his rival Hillary Clinton's chances in that election.
Trump has long bristled at that finding, which Russia denies.
Evanina warned on Friday that Russia is already going after former Vice President Biden and what it regards as an anti-Russia US "establishment."
Evanina said Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russia Ukrainian politician, has been "spreading claims about corruption - including through publicised leaked phone calls" to undermine Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party. Trump supporters in the US Senate have launched investigations questioning Biden's son Hunter's involvement in alleged business activities in Ukraine.
Evanina said "Kremlin-linked actors" also are trying to "boost President Trump's candidacy via social media and Russian television."
He said his agency assessed that China would prefer that Trump not win re-election, because Beijing regards him as too unpredictable.
He said China has been expanding efforts to influence US politics ahead of the November election to try to shape US policy, exert pressure on US politicians it regards as anti-China, and deflect criticism of China.
The Trump administration's relationship with China has taken a starkly more adversarial tone, including the closure last month of Beijing's consulate in Houston and an executive order on Thursday that banned dealings with the Chinese owners of consumer apps TikTok and WeChat.
“Although China will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action, its public rhetoric over the past few months has grown increasingly critical of the current administration’s Covid- 19 response, closure of China’s Houston consulate and actions on other issues,” Evanina wrote.
Iran may use online influence
Evanina said Iran is likely to use online tactics such as spreading disinformation to discredit US institutions and President Trump and to stir up US voters' discontent.
“Iran’s efforts along these lines probably will focus on online influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-US content,” Evanina wrote. “Tehran’s motivation to conduct such activities is, in part, driven by a perception that President Trump’s re-election would result in a continuation of US pressure on Ira n in an effort to foment regime change.”
Tougher on Russia than any other country
The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Mark Warner, thanked Evanina for his warning in a statement and added that all Americans "should endeavour to prevent outside actors from being able to interfere in our elections, influence our politics, and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions."
The White House responded to the news with a statement saying “the United States will not tolerate foreign interference in our electoral processes and will respond to malicious foreign threats that target our democratic institutions."
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Trump's re-election campaign, insisted that Trump has been "tougher on Russia than any administration in history."
"We don’t need or want foreign interference, and President Trump will beat Joe Biden fair and square," Murtaugh added.
This will be an unusual year for US voters. The coronavirus pandemic is expected to result in many more voters than usual casting ballots by mail, which could mean it will take longer to learn who won.
Trump has been attacking the idea of voting by mail, saying despite research to the contrary that it is likely to result in fraud.