Trump and Putin shaking hands
Credit: Shealah Craighead/Flickr

After reviewing classified intelligence reports about Vladimir Putin’s attempts to interfere in the 2020 election over three weeks ago, Senator Richard Blumenthal tried to sound the alarm.

The warning lights are flashing red. America’s elections are under attack.

This week, I reviewed classified materials in the Senate’s Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility and received a similarly classified briefing on malign foreign threats to U.S. elections. I was shocked by what I learned — and appalled that, by swearing Congress to secrecy, the Trump administration is keeping the truth about a grave, looming threat to democracy hidden from the American people. On Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement that only hints at the threats.

The facts are chilling. I believe the American public needs and deserves to know them. The information should be declassified immediately.

Blumenthal went on to say that what he learned makes “Moscow’s past interference and nefarious actions look like child’s play.” We still, however, have no idea of what shocked him enough to write that op-ed in the Washington Post.

What we do know is how the Trump administration reacted. Last Friday, the Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, told Congress that his office would no longer brief them in person about foreign election interference, but would submit written reports. Clearly they don’t want to face probing questions from Congress. In defending his actions, however, Ratcliffe admitted that it goes beyond that.

Ratcliffe’s initial argument doesn’t make any sense. He said that he is going to stop in-person briefings because members of Congress leaked classified information to the press. What he didn’t explain is how that would stop leaks. Classified information provided in writing is even easier to share with reporters.

In a scathing rebuke of Ratcliffe’s announcement, the Washington Post editorial board pointed out that the only so-called “leaks” came from the kind issued by Senator Blumenthal.

After the intelligence community briefed members of Congress in late July about threats to the upcoming election, Democrats expressed alarm about what they had learned — and about the fact that the information had not been shared with the American public. “The warning lights are flashing red. America’s elections are under attack,” wrote Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in a Post op-ed, without disclosing any specifics…

[T]he only “leak” was the simple fact that the administration was withholding critical information about Russia’s interference — which, of course, is intended to help President Trump win reelection.

In that clip of Ratcliffe’s Fox News appearance, he eventually got to the point by saying that Democrats leaked information that “simply wasn’t true, that somehow Russia is a greater security threat than China.” In a case of obvious projection, Ratcliffe is telling us that the Trump administration doesn’t want Congress or the public to know what Moscow is doing to interfere in the election, but instead wants to change the narrative to focus on the distraction they’re offering about the threat posed by China. In other words, Ratcliffe is suggesting that he will now cherry-pick what intelligence is shared with Congress to provide cover for what Moscow is up to.

Added to that is a troubling story about yet another purge in the Justice Department by Attorney General Barr.

Current and former national security officials are raising concerns over Attorney General William Barr’s recent decision to remove the head of a Justice Department office that helps ensure federal counterterrorism and counterintelligence activities are legal – and replace him with a political appointee with relatively limited experience.

Barr has reassigned 23-year career professional Brad Wiegmann, who had been serving as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Office of Law and Policy. As ABC News reports, “The office shapes government efforts by ensuring that new policies and executive actions don’t violate federal law.”

We’ve heard stories from former Trump administration officials who have said that they often found themselves having to tell the president that the actions he wanted to take were not legal. As former DHS Chief of Staff Miles Taylor said, Trump would claim to have “magical authorities” to break the law.

Now Barr has removed the person whose job it is to tell the administration when they are breaking the law and replaced him with a partisan loyalist. While it might not be unprecedented to do that, the fact that it comes a couple of months before an election makes this one troubling. Here is the most telling part about Wiegmann’s replacement, Kellen Dwyer:

From 2018 to 2019, he served as a fellow at the conservative-leaning Leonine Forum, a non-profit organization that says its alumni are “committed to the cause of reintroducing the tenets of [the Catholic church] into the political, policy, legal, business, and cultural activities of society.”

The Leonine Forum was created by the Catholic Information Center (CIC), an extremist group founded by Father John McCloskey, who eventually left the organization over allegations of sexual assault. Several members of the Trump administration have close ties to the CIC, including Attorney General Barr, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, and economic adviser Larry Kudlow.

What appears to be happening is that both Ratcliffe and Barr are paving the way for Putin and Trump, who speak regularly by phone, to illegally collude in their efforts to influence the election—this time from the Oval Office with the entire federal bureaucracy at their disposal.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.