Ratcliffe went off script with Iran remarks, officials say

Source: Politico | October 28, 2020 | Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman

The intelligence chief went slightly further than the talking points shared with other agencies.

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe went off script when he alleged during a press conference last week that Iran was sending intimidating emails to Americans in order to “damage President Trump,” according to two senior administration officials with knowledge of the episode.

The reference to Trump was not in Ratcliffe’s prepared remarks about the foreign election interference, as shown to and signed off by FBI Director Chris Wray and senior DHS official Chris Krebs, the director of the department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency.

Wray and Krebs stood behind Ratcliffe as he addressed the public, supportive of the general intention to alert voters to a malicious influence operation. But they were surprised by Ractliffe’s political aside, which had not appeared in the prepared text, the officials said.

The press conference centered around menacing emails that had been sent to Democratic voters warning them to vote for Trump “or we will come after you.”

Ratcliffe attributed the emails to Iran but said they were “designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump,” raising immediate questions about how threatening Democrats to vote for Trump could be aimed at damaging the president’s re-election bid — and how the intelligence community had made that determination within 24 hours of the messages.

Ractliffe also contrasted Iran’s actions with those of Russia, adding, “although we have not seen the same actions from Russia, we are aware that they have obtained some voter information just as they did in 2016.”

Ratcliffe, who has come under fire from Democrats since his confirmation in May, had decided on his own earlier on in the day to hold the press conference about the spoofed emails, the officials said. The FBI and CISA joined in on the briefing so that the warning about Iranian and Russian interference in the presidential election would be seen as independent and apolitical.

Journalists were given a roughly 30-minute warning about a forthcoming “election security” announcement. The seven-minute briefing, during which the officials didn’t take any questions, was hastily arranged and rushed, officials said, to avoid conflicting with a rally Trump was scheduled to give that night.

The unusual announcement prompted days of leaks and counterleaks over whether Iran or Russia represented the greater election threat, and set off a fresh round of criticism from Democratic lawmakers.

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