Dueling Narratives Emerge From Muddied Account of Russia’s 2020 Interference

As accusations swirled Sunday about Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2020 election, President Trump’s national security adviser and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. could not agree on what Moscow is, or is not, doing.

Their disagreement came as intelligence officials disputed reports that emerged last week about a briefing of the House Intelligence Committee. The officials now maintain that the House members either misheard or misinterpreted a key part of the briefing, and that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not mean to say that it believes the Russians are currently intervening in the election explicitly to help President Trump.

They do believe that Russia is intervening in the election, and that Moscow prefers Mr. Trump, a deal maker it knows well. But at least for now, those two objectives may not be linked.

The differing interpretations only made it easier for the Trump administration and Democrats to put forward their own version of what the Russians are doing. As the national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, defended Mr. Trump and intimated that the Russians favored the Democratic presidential front-runner, Senator Bernie Sanders, Mr. Biden blamed the president and other Republicans for allowing Russia to continue to interfere in the election.

Mr. O’Brien, who took office at the end of last summer, insisted on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he had never seen any intelligence suggesting that the Russians were interfering on behalf of Mr. Trump.

“There’s no briefing that I’ve received, that the president has received, that says that President Putin is doing anything to try and influence the election in favor of President Trump,” Mr. O’Brien said, referring to the Russian leader, Vladimir V. Putin. “We just haven’t seen that intelligence. If it’s out there, I haven’t seen it.”

He was referring to an assessment provided to the House Intelligence Committee on Feb. 13. That briefing outlined the breadth of Russian efforts to get involved in the November election — from hacking into voting systems to disinformation.

At the root of the confusion is what Shelby Pierson, a senior intelligence official responsible for overseeing the issues of election interference, said in that briefing.

Ms. Pierson, a longtime intelligence official, said there was no doubt the Russians were continuing to insert themselves in the election process. That would be consistent with past intelligence reports, and the effort by the United States Cyber Command in 2018 to block Russian intelligence from manipulating social media before the midterm congressional elections.

But some intelligence officials said Ms. Pierson did not say that the current interference was explicitly on Mr. Trump’s behalf. Others in the briefing said that in response to lawmakers’ follow-up questions, officials made the connection between the Russian preference for Mr. Trump and Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the election.

The difference between actively backing Mr. Trump and preferring his re-election is a subtle nuance, officials say, but an important one: It is probably too early for the Russians to begin any significant move to bolster a specific candidate. In 2016, they at first sought to cause chaos and hurt Hillary Clinton, intelligence reports released later that year said, but only in the last few months before the election did they actively work to elect Mr. Trump.

If they go the same route now, it would not be inconsistent with backing Mr. Sanders for the Democratic nomination, in part because Mr. Sanders has voted against new sanctions on Russia and because he is considered a noninterventionist. And they may conclude, rightly or wrongly, that Mr. Trump could beat Mr. Sanders.

Mr. O’Brien seemed to have little doubt that the Russians preferred Mr. Sanders. “What I’ve heard from the F.B.I.,” he said, “is that Russia would like Bernie Sanders to win the Democrat nomination. They’d probably like him to be president, understandably, because he wants to spend money on social programs and probably would have to take it out of the military.”

He did not give the source of that intelligence.

Mr. Sanders has denounced Russia and warned it not to interfere in the election.

Mr. Biden, who was in office as the Obama White House struggled over how to respond to Russian interference in 2016, saw some advantage in claiming he was the candidate Mr. Putin hated.

“The Russians don’t want me to be the nominee,” he said on “Face the Nation.” “They spent a lot of money on bots on Facebook, and they’ve been taken down, saying Biden is a bad guy. They don’t want Biden running. They’re not — no one’s helping me to try to get the nomination. They have good reason.”

Mr. Biden said he had not been informed of any specific intelligence. But intelligence officials say the reports they have generated have been consistent: Russian activity did not end with the 2016 election.

Mr. Biden suggested that Mr. Trump was still denying Russia’s involvement in 2016, even though American intelligence officials have testified on the issue every year of his presidency.

“The president denies they’re involved,” Mr. Biden said. “They’ve been involved. I was deeply involved in the intelligence apparatus and how it functioned before we left the vice presidency. It was clear they were involved. The president continues to deny their involvement. It’s overwhelming. And the fact is that everybody knows.”

He accused the Republican leadership in the Senate of failing to act to secure electoral systems.

While Congress allocated several hundred million dollars for election security immediately after the 2016 election, gaping holes in the system remain, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has repeatedly blocked additional legislation from coming to the floor for a vote.

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