Russian and Iranian election interference claims could have been timed to ‘distract’ from Obama’s attack on Trump, says former US National Intelligence Director

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies about potential Russian interference in the presidential election before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., U.S. May 8, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
  • FBI claims that Iran and Russia are trying to influence the US election may have been an attempt to distract from President Obama’s speech attacking Donald Trump, according to former National Intelligence Director James Clapper.
  • Clapper told the BBC that there was “some scepticism” about the timing of the revelations, coming as the former president launched a personal attack on Trump.
  • Clapper’s successor John Ratcliffe made the claims at a hastily arranged press conference on Wednesday.
  • Clapper said that it was a “sad commentary on our current situation” that statements from the FBI could no longer necessarily be taken at face value.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

US Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe’s claim on Wednesday that Iran and Russia are trying to interfere in the US election could have been an attempt to distract from President Obama’s speech attacking Donald Trump, according to one of his predecessors.

James Clapper, who served as Director of National Intelligence from 2010 until 2016, questioned the timing of Ratcliffe’s announcement, which came in the form of a hastily assembled FBI press conference on Wednesday evening.

Clapper said there was “some scepticism” about the timing of Ratcliffe’s announcement, which detailed disinformation attempts by Russia and Iran to interfere in the presidential election, given that it came shortly after a speech in which President Obama mocked Trump as a “crazy uncle” and said the president’s actions emboldened others to be “cruel,” “divisive,” and “racist.”

“It’s obviously a good thing when the government warns the electorate about potential foreign interference,” Clapper told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday morning.

“That said, there is some scepticism here about the timing of this announcement right on the heels of a pretty stark speech by President Obama which attacks President Trump personally, so one wonders whether this wasn’t at least in part motivated by an attempt to distract from that.”

He added that it was a “sad commentary on our current situation” that people didn’t feel confident about taking these announcements at face value.

President Trump is reportedly considering firing FBI director Christopher Wray for failing to launch an investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, which he believes could offer him a pre-election boost in the polls.

The timing of the FBI’s announcement has clear parallels with 2016, when the agency wrote to Congress shortly before polling day to announce that it had opened an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

Ratcliffe is a former Republican congressman and a vocal Trump supporter, who the president last year appointed as the head of the United States Intelligence Community, when Ratcliffe promised he would be “entirely apolitical as the director of national intelligence.”

But critics say he has since adopted an intensely political approach to the role, according to a New York Times report, which cited his move to disclose unverified intelligence which mentioned Hillary Clinton as evidence of his political agenda.

Clapper also called into question Ratcliffe’s suggestion that a series of “spoofed emails” orchestrated by Iran were designed to “damage President Trump” rather than his Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

The emails, which purported to be from the Proud Boys, a far-right US group, were sent to registered Democrats and said they would “come after” them if they failed to support Trump.

“I could argue that these emails are a help to President Trump simply by intimidating voters,” Clapper told the BBC.

Ratcliffe did not detail how he believed such emails were designed to “damage” Trump but he may have meant that they were designed to associate the president in the minds of voters with the Proud Boys, a group known for its anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric, according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre.

The emails appeared to come from an official proud boys email address. But CNN, the New York Times, and other outlets reported that the emails had been sent from foreign servers.

“We are in possession of all your information (email, address, telephone … everything),” read one such email, sent to a voter in Florida.

“You are currently registered as a Democrat and we know this because we have gained access into the entire voting infrastructure. You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you.

“Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for. I would take this seriously if I were you.”