Trump rewrites the Russia probe from the hospital

Source: Politico | October 6, 2020 | Natasha Bertrand, Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney

The president declassified intelligence documents meant to implicate Clinton in 2016 meddling, but officials say they’re misleading.

Even as he recovers from a coronavirus case that left him hospitalized for days, President Donald Trump has intensified a late-campaign effort to undermine widely accepted evidence about Russia’s election interference efforts in 2016.

Trump authorized the declassification and release of documents this week based on intelligence that even his own advisers warn could be Russian disinformation, in what his allies have signaled is aimed at sowing doubt at the intelligence community’s conclusion that the meddling in the 2016 campaign came at the Kremlin’s direction — and was intended to boost his candidacy.

As Trump was still recuperating in the presidential suite at Walter Reed on Monday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said the president had “already tasked me with getting some declassification rolling” on sensitive Russia probe documents.

Some of those documents were released on Tuesday afternoon, including heavily redacted notes from former CIA Director John Brennan following a briefing with then-President Barack Obama. The notes describe intelligence reports that were drawn from Russian operatives, summaries of which Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe declassified last week.

In the legible, unredacted portion of Brennan’s notes, first published by Fox News, he wrote: “We’re getting additional insight into Russian activities from [REDACTED].”

In another section, the notes describe an alleged plan “approved by Hillary Clinton a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security service.”

A second, also heavily redacted document released on Tuesday, a summary of the intelligence the CIA prepared for the FBI, describes “an exchange” between unknown individuals regarding “Hillary Clinton’s approval of a plan concerning U.S. Presidential Candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering U.S. elections as a means of distracting the public from the use of her private email server.”

Some Trump allies have framed this latest declassification push not as an effort to question Russia’s interference at all but simply to question the “Trump-Russia collusion” narrative that loomed over the White House for much of Trump’s presidency. But Ratcliffe’s release suggested that the Russian intelligence indicated the attribution of 2016 interference to Russia at all was part of a Clinton plot to stir up a scandal against Trump. And many Trump allies have deployed the new evidence to broadly declare that the entire scandal was cooked up by Democrats.

Republicans and Democrats had previously rejected this Russian chatter as likely disinformation intended to deflect from Moscow’s own hacking operation targeting the Democratic National Committee. And Clinton herself was publicly making the case at the time that Trump was inviting Russian interference. Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Clinton, said last week that the documents were “baseless bullshit.”

Four people familiar with the matter said the Russians’ assessment of Clinton was only one part of a larger intelligence report that was billed as an initial examination of Russian cyberattacks targeting the 2016 election, and was not the reason why it was referred to the bureau.

The people all described Ratcliffe as “cherry-picking” portions of the intelligence to try to tarnish Trump’s political enemies.

Brennan told CNN on Tuesday that the declassified material was his “notes from the 2016 period when I briefed President Obama and the rest of the national security council team about what the Russians were up to, and I was giving examples of the type of access that the U.S. intelligence community had to Russian information and what the Russians were talking about and alleging.”

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