Right-wing media embrace John Ratcliffe's spin on alleged Iran election interference

Sen. Chuck Schumer strongly suggests he was actually told something different in a classified briefing

John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence under President Donald Trump, announced yesterday that not only was the Iranian government behind threatening emails recently sent to voters in the United States but also, counterintuitively, this was being done in order to “damage President Trump” in the election.

Ratcliffe had recently selectively declassified allegations against Hillary Clinton, which had previously been dismissed as Russian disinformation, in what was apparently part of the continued effect to rewrite the narrative of Russia’s interference on behalf of Trump in the 2016 election.

The threatening emails to voters were made to look like they came from the far-right street gang the Proud Boys, whom Trump endorsed at the first presidential debate. According to Ratcliffe’s logic, however, this is really a sort of reverse psychology to make Trump supporters look bad, with a singular purpose of hurting Trump in the election.

But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) appeared Wednesday night on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, and strongly suggested that Ratcliffe and intelligence professionals had told something different to members of Congress about the Iranian interference: that the country’s goal was to sow chaos and lack of confidence for its own sake, rather than to help or hurt specific candidates.

While it might be expected for Schumer, as a leading Democrat, to offer up such an interpretation, one argument in his favor is that The Washington Post noted Ratcliffe had “confirmed that Iran was also distributing a video ‘that implies that individuals could cast fraudulent ballots, even from overseas.’” The video in question used clips of Trump himself, making the kind of false statements that he has been using to try to discredit mail-in voting and the credibility of any potential Biden victory among his own supporters. When adding in this sort of disinformation spreading — similar to what we’ve seen from right-wing media — the overall pattern seems more like an all-of-the-above approach to fomenting uncertainty and doubt, rather than a targeted campaign against just one side.

While there are restrictions on what can be shared in such closed-door briefings, Schumer seemed to come as close as possible to declaring that what senators were told in the briefing was quite different from what Ratcliffe had told the public.

Video file

Citation From the October 21, 2020, edition of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show

RACHEL MADDOW (HOST): Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe tonight did say to the public that this attack — which he attributed to Iran, although he didn’t describe the attack — was designed to damage President Trump. That sounds like —

SCHUMER: I did not —

MADDOW: — what you just said.

SCHUMER: Rachel, that is different —

MADDOW: Is that — that is not what he told you in the briefing?

SCHUMER: Well, I’m not saying what he told me in the briefing. I can tell you that from the briefing, I had the strong impression it was much rather to undermine confidence in elections, and not aimed at any particular figure but rather to undermine the very wellspring of our democracy — elections. That was my strong impression at the meeting.

I did not get the impression it was aimed at any political figure, and I’m surprised that DNI Ratcliffe said that at the — at this press conference, if he did.

But in the introductory monologue of Fox News’ Hannity, the host began with a “Fox News alert” that Iran was “attempting to intimidate voters here in the U.S. with violent threats, likely in an effort to help Joe Biden.”

Video file

Citation From the October 21, 2020, edition of Fox News Hannity

And on Thursday morning, Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo discussed the story with Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL), who alleged that “Iran desperately wants President Trump out, due to its maximum pressure campaign, and they know that Biden will go back to appeasement. But, you know, we have to stay strong, continue to communicate to the public.”

“You make a good point,” Bartiromo agreed. “Because I think Joe Biden, over the last few weeks, said that one of the first things he's going to do is return the U.S. to the Iran deal — and also the Paris climate deal. So those two things, two things that Biden has talked about. So you're right, Iran probably wants that.”

Video file

Citation From the October 22, 2020, edition of Fox Business’ Mornings with Maria Bartiromo

Just two weeks ago, during an interview with Trump, Bartiromo had parroted Ratcliffe’s spin from his prior declassifications — while she also helped to back up Trump’s conspiracy theories against mail-in voting.

Newsweek dutifully carried the headline “Iran Is Interfering in the U.S. Election Intimidating Voters to Hurt Trump, Intelligence Chief Says.” Similar headlines can also be found from the likes of Breitbart and The Daily Wire.

Among more mainstream outlets, The Washington Post covered the Democratic response to Ratcliffe’s allegation as a controversy in and of itself, while The New York Times included both Ratcliffe’s argument and the fact that he has “drawn criticism for embracing Mr. Trump’s political agenda from what is typically an apolitical post,” as well as an inclusion of Schumer’s response.

The Wall Street Journal, a corporate cousin of Fox News, also carried a news item that contained opinions from both Ratcliffe along with two other sources, ascribing a variety of motives to Iran: Ratcliffe’s own take that the country is seeking to harm Trump, another official saying it was motivated by seeking to undermine election confidence in general, and a third who offered up a combination of both suspected motivations.