When the office of the Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, called the legislature on Capitol Hill on Friday to tell them the government would no longer provide personal information about threats to the US election, Congress officials tried to find out why the director had suddenly withdrawn from his obligation to appear for questioning.
You still don’t have a solid answer.
Two government officials and three others familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast that senior White House officials, including National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, had discussed the matter repeatedly in meetings with staff and with President Donald Trump how to restrict and control the flow of information to Capitol Hill on such sensitive issues. Those conversations focused mainly on how details and materials from Congressional briefings get to the media, their belief that Democrats politicize the meetings, and how it can be beneficial to limit the time some administrative officials spend in front of Congress.
On August 10, Ratcliffe’s office offered to notify the House Intelligence Committee of security threats in elections, according to a person familiar with the matter. And the committee had already booked a room and time – on September 17th – for Ratcliffe to speak to lawmakers about the latest findings from his office, particularly about how Russia is trying to meddle in the 2020 elections like Iran tries to undermine democratic institutions, and how China sees this candidates. The office had also agreed to brief all members of the House on September 24th and 25th.
But two weeks after these offers, Ratcliffe reversed course. The turnaround hit officials as an escalation of former acting intelligence chief Ric Grenell’s decision to skip a security briefing for elections in March and instead sent William Evanina, head of the National Counter-Espionage and Security Center.
On phone calls with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Ratcliffe expressed frustration that information from previous briefings had got into the press, according to two people familiar with the matter. Even after those calls and the letters Ratcliffe sent to Hill on Saturday, lawmakers weren’t sure what exactly triggered the ODNI announcement.
In meetings over the past few months, O’Brien has twice told his office that he does not want the National Security Council to contact Congress on election security issues and told officials that he disagreed with the council this matter needed action as this was largely the responsibility of other agencies. He also told his team officials that he wanted to curtail briefings in Congress, said two people familiar with those conversations. These sources say it is unclear whether O’Brien’s comments lead to administrative action.
Another person familiar with O’Brien’s thoughts said it was the National Security Advisor’s belief that briefings in Congress led to political disputes between lawmakers. Members learned little from personal interactions that they couldn’t get from a briefing document, this person said.
A White House official told The Daily Beast that Meadows had been concerned for months about the kind of briefings on Capitol Hill that Democratic sources might be using to try to make Trump look bad by secretly leaking the media. Meadows has discussed the matter with President Trump at least twice this summer, the official said.
“Since Meadows became Chief of Staff, there has been tighter control over what the people on the hill can do compared to Meadows [Mick] Mulvaney era, “said a Republican near the White House, adding that Meadows applied this to a wide range of matters, including foreign policy and national security, as well as budgetary issues. “You don’t want to be yelled at in the Oval Office because Trump saw something The New York Times that probably leaked from the hill. “
On Tuesday afternoon, a senior administration official referred to Meadows’ previous work on the Oversight Committee, the Congressional Task Force on oversight of the FBI and the Department of Justice, and impeachment hearings as evidence of his authority on these matters. “He has seen firsthand how these hearings or interviews were armed with leaks,” said the official, “particularly from the Intel committee of chairman Schiff during the impeachment.”
This official added: “It would be correct to say that it was transmitted [to others] this concerns and tries to better protect the intelligence so that back and forth or clips of information cannot be taken out of context. “
Ratcliffe’s decision to ultimately pull the plug on face-to-face briefings has sparked an angry backlash among Democrats on the Hill, who see it at best as an affront to Congress’s role in election security and a cynical ploy to keep news private at worst, Russia’s participation in the 2020 elections. On Tuesday, the spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) spoke together with the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-IN), chairman of the subcommittee on defense in the House Appropriations Committee, sent a letter to Ratcliffe requesting that the previously planned security briefing for elections be resumed.
“If you are unwilling to provide election-related information to Congress, we have no choice but to look into the full range of tools available to enforce compliance,” the letter said.
Citing “dozens of interagency meetings to secure the 2020 election last year alone,” NSC spokesman John Ullyot said in a statement to The Daily Beast that “electoral security has received more attention than any government under President Trump in front of him”.
He continued, “Ensuring a safe choice remains a top priority for the NSC.”
The NSC is the coordinating body for government on national security issues such as electoral interference. However, this does not mean that the Council is actively involved in securing the elections.