Was Ratcliffe’s Iran–Proud Boys Presser a Political Gift to Trump?
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Democrats are skeptical that the alleged Iranian plot was meant to hurt the president, as intelligence officials reportedly see Russia as a much bigger election threat.

In a hastily arranged news conference Wednesday night, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray came out in tandem to announce that Iran—and not far-right group the Proud Boys—was behind threatening emails sent to Democrats. “We have confirmed that some voter-registration information has been obtained by Iran and separately by Russia,” said Ratcliffe, a Donald Trump loyalist appointed to the top intelligence post this past spring. “This data can be used by foreign actors to attempt to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos, and undermine your confidence in American democracy.”

Some of that voter data is public, Ratcliffe noted. But he said that government officials “have already seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump,” referring to the recent emails that had claimed to be sent by the Proud Boys. Some of the emails in question read: “You are currently registered as a Democrat and we know this because we have gained access into the entire voting infrastructure. You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you. Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for. I would take this seriously if I were you.”

At last month’s presidential debate, Trump seemingly ordered the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,“ which many took as him suggesting that they be prepared to fight for him in some fashion. Earlier this week, the group’s leader, Enrique Tarrio, shot down any connection to the voter-intimidation campaign. Tarrio reportedly said on the social media app Parler that it was a “fucking bold-face lie” that the Proud Boys were responsible for the emails, adding, “Whoever did this needs to rot in prison.” (A spokesperson for Iran’s mission to the United Nations denied the allegation that Iran attempted to tamper in the U.S. election. “Iran has no interest in interfering in the U.S. election and no preference for the outcome,” Alireza Miryousefi said in a statement.)

The Washington Post reports that Democrats questioned Ratcliffe’s characterization of the evidence and were skeptical of his suggestion that the alleged Iranian scheme was somehow an effort to hurt Trump. “These election interference operations are clearly not meant to harm President Trump,” the House Homeland Security Committee tweeted Wednesday, adding, “Ratcliffe has TOO OFTEN politicized the Intelligence Community to carry water for the President.” (Ratcliffe released “unverified information” about the 2016 election just hours before Trump’s debate last month with Joe Biden, a move seen as intended to aid Trump politically.) Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday on MSNBC that his understanding, based on a closed-door intelligence briefing, was that the threatening emails were likely sent to “to undermine the very wellspring of our democracy,” not specifically to damage the president. Representative Adam Schiff also said, “it’s hard to see how that could be hurtful to the president.”

Slate’s Fred Kaplan writes that Ratcliffe holding such an “absurdly overdramatized press conference...seems to have been blatantly partisan: to help Trump win the election by saying that Iran, which is commonly viewed as a hostile actor, wants him to lose.” Richard Clarke, a former White House cybersecurity special adviser, told Kaplan that “whatever Iran is doing, it’s minuscule compared to Russian interference” to help Trump.

Indeed, after the Trump administration pointed the finger at Iran on Wednesday night, the New York Times reported Thursday that “many intelligence officials said they remained far more concerned about Russia, which in recent days has hacked into state and local computer networks in breaches that could allow Moscow broader access to American voting infrastructure.” The Times notes that “one official compared the Iranian action as single-A baseball, while the Russians are major leaguers.”

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