When the Office of the Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe called lawmakers on Capitol Hill Friday to inform them that the administration would no longer provide in-person briefings on threats to the U.S. election, congressional staffers scrambled to figure out why the director suddenly had pulled back from his commitment to appear for questioning.
They still don’t have a solid answer.
But two administration officials and three other individuals familiar with the issue told The Daily Beast that top White House officials, including National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, have repeatedly discussed in meetings with staff and with President Donald Trump how to restrict and control the flow of information on such sensitive topics to Capitol Hill. Those conversations have primarily focused on how details and materials from congressional briefings leak to the media, on their belief that Democrats politicize the briefings, and how it may be beneficial to limit the time some administration officials spend in front of Congress.
Ratcliffe’s announcement that he was suspending the election security briefings came less than 70 days before the 2020 presidential election. Individuals close to Trump and Meadows say they were unaware of Ratcliffe’s decision to scale back the briefings until ODNI sent formal letters to Capitol Hill Saturday. But the shared belief among top officials about the need to curtail in-person briefings underscores the extent to which the Trump White House believes lawmakers’ access to sensitive national security matters is a political hindrance.
On August 10, Ratcliffe’s office had offered to brief the House Intelligence Committee on election security threats, according to an individual familiar with the matter. And the committee had already booked a room and time—September 17—for Ratcliffe to speak with lawmakers about his office’s latest findings, primarily how Russia is attempting to meddle in the 2020 election, how Iran seeks to undermine democratic institutions and how China views the candidates. The office had also agreed to give all House members a briefing on September 24 and 25.
But two weeks after those offers, Ratcliffe reversed course. The reversal struck officials as an escalation of former acting intelligence chief Ric Grenell’s decision to skip an election security briefing in March, sending William Evanina, the head of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, instead.
In phone calls to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Ratcliffe expressed frustration that information from prior briefings had made it into the press, according to two individuals familiar with the matter. Even after those calls and the letters which Ratcliffe sent to the Hill Saturday, lawmakers were still unsure exactly what had triggered the ODNI announcement.
On two occasions over the last several months, O’Brien told his office in meetings that he did not want the National Security Council to engage with Congress on election security issues, telling officials that he did not think that matter was something the council needed to take action on since it was largely the purview of other agencies. He also told officials on his team that he wanted to limit congressional briefings, two individuals familiar with those conversations said. Those sources say is unclear if O’Brien’s comments lead to any administrative action.
Another individual familiar with O’Brien’s thinking said it was the national security adviser’s belief that congressional briefings led to political bickering between lawmakers. Members learned little from in-person interactions they could not get from a briefing document, that person said.
One White House official told The Daily Beast that Meadows has for months been wary of the type of briefings on Capitol Hill that Democratic sources can potentially use to try to make Trump look bad through surreptitious leaks to media outlets. Meadows has discussed the matter on at least two occasions with President Trump this summer, that official said.
“Since Meadows has become chief of staff, there’s been tighter control over what people can do on the Hill, compared to the [Mick] Mulvaney era,” a Republican close to the White House said, adding that Meadows has applied this to a broad array of matters, including foreign policy and national security, as well as budgetary issues. “They don’t want to get screamed at in the Oval Office because Trump saw something in The New York Times that was leaked, likely, from the Hill.”
On Tuesday afternoon, a senior administration official pointed to Meadows’ prior work on the Oversight Committee, the congressional task force on FBI and Department of Justice oversight, and the impeachment hearings as proof of his authority on these matters. “He’s seen firsthand how these hearings or interviews have been weaponized with leaks,” the official said, “particularly out of Chairman Schiff’s Intel Committee during impeachment.”
This official added, “It’d be accurate to say he’s conveyed [to others] these concerns and sought to better protect intelligence so back and forths or clips of information can’t be shared out of context.”
The decision by Ratcliffe to ultimately pull the plug on in-person briefings has caused angry pushback among Democrats on the Hill, who see it as an affront to Congress’ role in election security, at best, and a cynical ploy to keep private any news of Russian involvement in the 2020 elections, at worst. On Tuesday Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) along with House Intelligence Committee Chairman 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 demanding that he reinstate the previously scheduled election security briefings.
“If you are unwilling to resume election-related intelligence briefings to Congress, we will have no choice but to consider the full range of tools available to compel compliance,” the letter says.
Citing “dozens of interagency meetings on securing the 2020 elections in the past year alone,” NSC spokesman John Ullyot said in a statement to The Daily Beast that “election security has received more focus under President Trump than any Administration before him.”
He went on to note that “ensuring a secure election remains a top priority for the NSC.”
The NSC is the coordinating body for the government on national security issues such as election interference, but that doesn’t mean the council is actively involved in safeguarding the election.