Chad Wolf Covered Up Russia’s 2020 Support for Trump

It’s 2022 and John Durham is still chasing conspiracy theories that Hillary Clinton invented Russia’s assistance for Trump in 2016.

But yesterday, DHS OIG released a report describing how Russia worked to help Trump again in 2020, a report that Chad Wolf then spent months covering up, ultimately burying it in election season dissemination controls. Among the policies the report suggests Wolf’s intervention violated is a 2004 law passed to prevent the kind of intelligence disasters that led to the Iraq War.

It started in spring 2020. Shortly after it became clear that Biden would be the candidate, the part of DHS that focuses on disinformation campaigns wrote a report on overt efforts by Russia to suggest Biden was senile — a repeat, as DHS recognized, of attacks Russian used against Hillary.

In April 2020, CYMC started drafting an intelligence product titled “Russia Likely to Denigrate Health of US Candidates to Influence 2020 Electoral Dynamics,” IA-44399-20 (the product).15 The intelligence analyst who authored the product told us after Super Tuesday,16 he noticed an uptick in Russian state media efforts to question candidate Joseph Biden’s mental health. He said he discussed the issue with CYMC’s mission manager, who mentioned similar actions occurring during the 2016 election. The analyst believed foreign efforts questioning a candidate’s health were worth exploring because they could impact voters’ willingness to vote for that candidate and began drafting the product. In its initial form, the product was approximately two pages in length and included information relating to one “current Democratic presidential candidate” and to Russian activities to influence the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. This version did not contain any information about other countries’ influence efforts. Based on our analysis, the intelligence product initially followed I&A’s internal drafting and editing process — the product was reviewed by CYMC’s team lead, senior intelligence officer, and I&A’s domestic disclosure officer, and oversight offices as described in IA-901 and CYMC policy.

Someone reviewing for privacy considerations asked for an edit because it seemed like sharing the intelligence report might be deemed as endorsing those claims about Biden. That’s how a “tone box” noting Iranian and Chinese complaints about Trump got added, to “blunt” the political impact of the original report.

He told us it was a feature intended to draw a contrast between the actions of Russia and those of Iran and China, but also described the tone box as a “blunting feature” meant to balance the product. When asked whether intelligence products require balancing, he said the addition of the tone box was not politicization, yet also said it showed I&A’s political savviness, as the state and local customers of their products tended to be political.

This is the equivalent of shitty both-sides journalism, but — as the IG Report makes clear — it also created scope problems in the report, which was ultimately about Russia.

Just before the finalized and approved report was about to be publicly disseminated, the DHS Chief of Staff got Wolf involved. At a July 8 meeting with the acting Chief of Intelligence and Analysis, according to his notes, Wolf told him to kill the report because it would hurt Trump.

The other attendees at that meeting, however, don’t remember the meeting that way. In written answers to questions, Wolf claimed he held the report because it was of shoddy quality.

We also interviewed the Acting Secretary, the DHS Acting Chief of Staff, the DHS Deputy Chief of Staff, and the Counselor to the Secretary about what occurred during the July 8 meeting,18 as the Acting USIA indicated to us that either they attended the meeting or were aware of the meeting. Not all of these officials recalled attending the meeting, and those who did recalled some details differently than the Acting USIA. Those who recalled attending the meeting all indicated the Acting Secretary did not make the alleged request to hold the product based on political considerations. More specifically, the Acting Secretary stated that he did not say the product would make the President look bad or would hurt the President’s campaign, and did not claim during the meeting that he had the authority to prevent the dissemination of the product. The Acting Secretary also stated that the meeting “conversation focused around the quality of the work and the apparent problem that I&A lacked any quality control review.

The acting Chief of Staff didn’t remember Wolf asking to kill the report because it would hurt Trump, either. But he did acknowledge that this was the single time when the Acting Secretary inserted himself into the review process.

[H]e said he did not recall the Acting Secretary referring to the product’s effect on the President or the President’s campaign, noting he “would have remembered such an outrageous comment.” Nonetheless, the Acting Chief of Staff also told us he could not recall another instance when the Acting Secretary was involved with other intelligence-related products to the same extent he was with the product, even though officials from the Office of the Secretary had previously voiced concerns over other I&A products. He stated, “During my tenure as Acting Chief of Staff, this is the only product I recall rising to the Secretary’s level….” The Acting Chief of Staff also stated that, other than the intelligence product in question, he could not recall any other instances in which the Acting Secretary had requested a meeting with I&A leadership related to pre-release distributions of I&A intelligence products.

After the July 8 meeting, the report was revised — to add a reference to “covert” efforts to spread the anti-Biden message, through proxies.

Within 2 days of the July 8 meeting, I&A revised the product. The revisions were minimal, mostly consisting of adding and defining the words “covert” and “overt.”

This is a minor report for the content of the report, which measured how the report was held up and Wolf’s role in it. But it is fairly important with respect to the content of the report itself. The IC was collecting intelligence showing that some of the outlets pushing the claim that Biden was senile were proxies hiding their ties to Russia. That’s the kind of information that American voters should know: that the attack lines on Biden were not entirely organic, but were an effort pushed covertly by Russia.

In any case, Wolf intervened again to prevent the dissemination of the report.

The Deputy Under Secretary for Intelligence Enterprise Operations told us that after receiving the advanced notification, the Acting Secretary reached out and spoke with her and the new Acting USIA to express concern because the Acting Secretary did not think the product changed and he did not understand the value it added.

I&A did another draft, which was approved on September 4.

I&A ultimately approved the product for dissemination on September 4.

Wolf got a heads up about that, too, and used it as an opportunity to spin his own involvement.

As I&A prepared the finalized product for dissemination on September 4, 2020, the new Acting USIA emailed the Acting Secretary to inform him about changes to the product’s content and dissemination process, and shared a draft of the product.20 The Acting Secretary did not respond to I&A, and we have no evidence that he made any further comments or requests to I&A relating to the product. However, in an email to his staff on the same day about the product, he focused on messaging the benefits of the involvement of the Office of the Secretary in the intelligence process, writing: “we need to turn this into a good news story. Key point is that I&A produced a better, clearer document because they were not left on their own.”

This document should have gone out that day, just barely making it under the wire of a newly adopted policy withhold certain kinds of reports within 60 days of an election.

In July 2020, I&A adopted a policy ceasing dissemination of unclassified products on foreign influence threats to elections 60 days prior to election day—in this case, September 4, 2020. Its reason for doing so was to safeguard “the Department’s role as a fair, neutral, and nonpartisan institution when it comes to US elections…. [Politics should not] play a role in the decisions of Intelligence Community leaders and officers regarding collection activities or analytic assessments.”

Had the report gone out, we would have had a US intelligence product demonstrating that Russia was pushing the same attack line as Fox News. Here’s part of the report as finalized on September 4:

But it didn’t happen. After Wolf succeeded in stalling the report twice, the report was disseminated via other channels, resulting in narrower circulation and still more delay.

DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency disseminated the product to the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors on September 8, 2020. I&A’s Field Operations Division dissemination occurred even later. As a result, I&A does not appear to have completed its dissemination until October 15, 2020.

DHS’ own review concluded that the report should have more clearly stated its conclusion: that Russia was targeting Democrats again.

[T]he piece seems to almost avoid the main message that is made explicit in the key judgment — that Russian influence actors are targeting the Democratic candidates in 2020[.]

The United States learned, at great cost, about how intently Russia was attempting to sow divisions in the United States by pushing certain campaign attacks. Even under Trump’s control, the government put in place efforts to prevent that from happening again.

And then Chad Wolf ensured those efforts would fail to identify Russia’s repeat performance of its 2016 attacks.

40 replies
  1. Leu2500 says:

    JFC. The Trump campaign couldn’t even come up with the “Biden has dementia” smear by themselves (in response to many believing that Trump has dementia), they had to be told to by Russia.

    And the right is STILL pushing the “Biden has dementia” smear; it trends on Twitter to this day.

    • emptywheel says:

      I think that overstates things.

      All this supports is that RU was also pushing that smear, including via covert channels.

    • joel fisher says:

      The GOP would have come up with this BS on their own. Like Russia, they didn’t want to waste their efforts on the also rans. Or–purest speculation–their early efforts helped Biden and selectively impacted others.

      • BobCon says:

        There is pretty clearly a high degree of overlapping work between GOP politicians and Russia being performed by right wing consultants.

        The consultants do the polling, focus group work, and political intelligence, and then they sell the results to both the GOP and Russia.

        Russia also does a fair amount of copycat work — it’s easy to catch up in a day or three to what’s trending. And I think it’s fair to say outlets like R T have had some success seeding narratives in the US right — the flow of pro-Putin sentiment on the US Right was clearly a PR campaign that was driven by Russia.

        The early work by Manafort and Stone’s firm helped create this world of right wing PR intermediaries, but they were long ago eclipsed by bigger players.

  2. Ravenclaw says:

    Thank you for finding this and bringing it to our attention. Too bad we’re just the choir! As far as I can tell, there will be no consequences for the perpetrator and virtually no publicity around the whole business. How can we get word out to those less inclined to seek factual information? And frame it in such a way that they can process the information without feeling their egos so bruised that it needs to be rejected in favor of some new outlandish ‘theory’ about spiders from Mars who want us all to wear headscarves?

    • BobCon says:

      Since you’re asking about what makes effective messaging, here’ a simple start:

      Every time you feel the need to jump to the conclusion “As far as I can tell, there will be no consequences for the perpetrator” STOP IT.

      The left has been trained by the right to immediately treat everything they do as hopeless and nothing undermines messaging better than liberals doing the right’s messaging right from the start.

      Putin’s propaganda to Ukraine was focused on telling them not to bother fighting, anything they did was doomed before they began.

      Every successful campaign involves a million steps, and many successful campaigns end up in a different place than the original goal. Don’t accept the right’s framing that success can only be measured in terms of prison. Treat the disclosure itself as a victory and keep pushing on.

      Stop self sabotaging. It’s not smart, it’s not savvy. If you want to understand framing, start by cauterizing “this will never work” out of your system and just push forward.

        • BobCon says:


          And just to add more to the question of messaging, think of the old advice for improv skits — always says YES AND instead of NO BUT.

          Add facts, make historical connections, name names. Explain, clarify, and avoid the impulse to kill momentum with either blank filler or empty negativity. Serious concerns with serious evidence are important, but without serious content find something else to say.

      • Rayne says:

        Thank you for that. Nihilism and cynicism are used as tools in demoralization which is a part of destabilization.

        Hope is radically subversive in the face of demoralization. Hope is what has made Ukraine successful so far in its pushback against Putin’s genocide.

      • Ravenclaw says:

        Your points are well taken! Though not exactly responsive to the spirit of what I was trying to convey – maybe my early-morning fog? I was not saying “oh, nothing will happen it’s hopeless” (though to be sure, there don’t seem to be any legal or financial consequences for Chad implied by the report). I was asking “what would be effective ways of getting the message across?” A very different proposition. Yes, hope still springs. But where shall we direct the flow?

        • Krisy Gosney says:

          “Don’t accept the right’s framing that success can only be measured in terms of prison. Treat the disclosure itself as a victory and keep pushing on.” -BobCon

          And I think one of the messages is- Another example of Russia trying to help Trump in 2020. This time by disseminating false claims about Biden’s health. Fox News was parroting those same claims. And Chad Wolf used delay tactics to keep the voters from finding out what Russia was doing right before we voted.

          Quicker version- Russia was all up in our 2020 election. Claiming Biden’s senile and getting Fox News to parrot that claim. A Trump appointee used delay tactics to successfully keep the US public from hearing about it.

        • Ginevra diBenci says:

          Here’s a suggestion. We are gearing up for another mortally consequential election this November. The mainstream media are parroting virtually nonstop the “conventional wisdom” that the GOP will sweep congress–and probably the World Series while they’re at it. (This benefits the media by ginning up conflict, without which they would have no narrative; whether this conflict climaxes in 2022 or (even better for them!) with another constitutional crisis in ’24, they are chasing clicks and eyeballs, now and in the future.)

          Should Democrats retain either House or Senate or both, the dream reality-show finale might be a bust. They might be reduced to investigating real reality. You know, doing research. Our task is to vote, harangue everyone we know to vote, and solve whatever logistical problems we can, for ourselves first and then for others. You know … like oxygen masks on a pitching 737.

          You *do* know. Act on that knowledge. Follow Ravenclaw’s example: don’t feel embarrassed about asking for guidance here.

      • grennan says:

        Remember Obama’s 2008 run when this was such an effective appeal. It’s easy to picture his delivery: “they actually accuse me of being a ‘hopemonger’!”

        Though it’s ‘common knowledge’ among the pundit class that Trump won by appealing to the despair of his voters, now he hopes to take advantage of the despair of those who want him gone. It’s a tool in his three-pronged goal: stay out of prison, grift his backers, and become president again. (Each of those prongs furthers the others.)

  3. Silly but True says:

    Question: pros vs. cons of publicly available forensic post-mortems?

    In wake of 2016 Russian active measures, nearly every involved social media company (Twitter, FB, Insta, et. al.) investigated, then released their findings. Twitter for example archived copies of every IRA account making available every single meme posted using them. Additionally, congressional cmtes. did the same thing; they archived every single meme. Then media did same thing through various “the top 50 Russian memes” articles, white papers, or media-focused academic research papers: Brookings, Wired, Vox, Politico, et . al.

    I’d like to think these were used to educate people to be more aware.

    But enter 2022, the cynic in me wonders if these efforts just made election shitposting x100 easier by putting everything in one place and easily accessible. Now instead of 13 guys having to create them, you have hundreds of 4chan/redditors just simply downloading whole archives of thousands of ready-to-post Hillary-Obama-Gun-BLM memes? Prigozhen is going to get his 2016 ruble’s worth out of these things.

    It seems that a gold-star research paper for any aspiring journalism studies major would be if, extent, and how are 2016 IRA active measures still being distributed throughout the internet in 2022. But then I’d probably worry how any beneficial conclusions would then be exploited in 2024.

    • Leoghann says:

      Meme accumulation is a popular hobby, with individuals usually specializing in one particular topic. I’m sure there are people on both (or four, or six) sides who have large meme collections. At one time, Phil Mickelson, of Snopes fame, had a side project of tracking down where some of them originated, but by 2016-18 there were far too many.

      And yes, people do use them for shit-posting, as well as for amusement.

    • harpie says:

      Interesting factoid: that DHS IG, Joseph V. CUFFARI [,Ph.D], is the same one who features in this NYT article from April:

      Homeland Security Watchdog Omitted “directed staff members to remove” Damaging Findings From Reports The findings were removed from inspector general investigations of domestic violence and sexual misconduct committed by officers in the department’s law enforcement agencies. 4/17/22

      […] according to documents obtained by The New York Times and two government officials familiar with the inquiries. […]

      • BobCon says:

        “Cuffari’s PhD from California Coast University… was conferred by a school that was unaccredited at the time. In 2004, two years after Cuffari received the degree, the Government Accountability Office prominently featured California Coast University in a report on unaccredited “diploma mills” that required no classroom instruction and issued degrees for low flat fees. ”

        • harpie says:

          hahahaha! OY!
          Thanks for looking into that, BobCon! It just looked so weird there.
          More from that 5/29/20 article:

          […] In recent weeks, President Donald Trump has fired independent inspectors general investigating wrongdoing by his administration and replaced them with political appointees beholden to him. In the past two months, Trump has gotten rid of or pushed aside five inspectors general, complaining that they were treating him “very unfairly.”

          Cuffari, whom Trump nominated in November 2018, is the kind of laissez-faire watchdog Trump is looking for. A senior staffer in Cuffari’s office told the Washington Post in March that the office was often empty, well before the pandemic hit. […]

          More grist for the mill.

        • harpie says:

          […] House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) sent a letter to Cuffari in March [3/26/20] to express his “deep concerns” about the quality of reports from Cuffari’s office on the deaths of two children in Customs and Border Protection custody. The reports were so flawed, Thompson said, that he was worried about Cuffari’s ability to investigate DHS’s response to COVID-19. […]

  4. xy xy says:

    The SCOTUS leak on the abortion ruling and Republicans and Mitch “it’s the left” was put out to take the headlines off this, RNC in the insurrection, J6C, DOJ getting the wins.
    Like Barr with the pre-release statement on the Mueller Report and this will continue to overtake the headlines, like McCarthy at the border being asked about the leaks and pivoting non-stop to the immigrant problem or the caravan heading to overtake your summer homes in MN.

  5. greenbird says:

    from the report:
    ” … The [intelligence] analyst who authored the product told us after Super Tuesday, he noticed an uptick in Russian state media efforts to question candidate Joseph Biden’s mental health. He said he discussed the issue with CYMC’s mission manager, who mentioned similar actions occurring during the 2016 election. The analyst believed foreign efforts questioning a candidate’s health were worth exploring because they could impact voters’ willingness to vote for that candidate and began drafting the product. In its initial form, the product was approximately two pages in length and included information relating to one “current Democratic presidential candidate” and to Russian activities to influence the 2020 U.S. Presidential election …
    This version did not contain any information about other countries’ influence efforts … “

  6. Rugger9 says:

    What accountability is Wolf facing here? IIRC, when these were done he was already illegal having exceeded his Acting term limit but I may be wrong. However, will AG Garland charge Wolf?

    One thing to consider is that much of the GQP support comes from people OK with the ‘ends justify the means’ school of ethics. They won’t consider Wolf’s actions a problem at all, only an expected effort to put Individual-1 back in power.

    • Silly but True says:

      From DHS OIG report:
      “What We Recommend
      I&A, working with relevant external offices as appropriate, should identify and implement changes to the review and dissemination process for I&A’s election-related intelligence products to ensure they are in accordance with applicable policies and guidelines.”

      DHS OIG did not refer anyone for further administrative disciplinary or criminal investigation.

      DHS I&A will change its procedures; the cynic in me says Wolf’s atypical review action will then get baked into DHS I&A report review SOP at that time, normalizing it for future.

  7. Rayne says:

    Chad Wolf really needs to be examined more closely. His appointment as Acting Secretary of Homeland Security was so damned sketchy. Since the invasion of Ukraine I haven’t been able to shake the idea he encouraged the crappy federal response to the Floyd protests in summer of 2020 to ensure the west coast was punctured with growing destabilization beginning in a state with a more conservative bent compared to CA and WA, and a racist history.

    • Rugger9 says:

      He and Barr would be the top of my list, but I recall during the end of the last regime that there were lots of discussion and posts about some of Wolf’s actions that he legally could not take because he exceeded his allowed term as ‘Acting’ and needed to be confirmed by the Senate or resign. Since neither happened he did not have statutory authority in PDX or elsewhere while siccing the PBs on BLM protestors.

      Garland could start by charging Wolf with the illegal orders that did cause harm to people, but I suspect he’s busy with J6 stuff now.

    • Leoghann says:

      Acting Chad Wolf’s stint as Acting DHS Secretary was beyond sketchy. Trump’s appointment of Wolf to the position was akin to my hiring someone from a high school ballet class to work on my car. The subsequent firing of the IG of the department ensured that there would be nothing untoward coming out about the Trump Campaign, no matter what. It also ensured that Bill Barr could continue to use ICE agents as his personal thug army.

      Unfortunately, the policies that put a time limit on the service of an acting secretary are much like the emoluments clause. There are no penalties, just policy.

      • Ginevra diBenci says:

        I would happily let a teenage ballerina replace my exhaust manifold! While we’re at it, let’s go back in time and replace Elaine Chao (the most corrupt and self-dealing Transportation Sec in history) with Cyd Charisse.

  8. Doctor Biobrain says:

    Too many liberals make the mistake of thinking their enemy’s enemy is their friend, like assuming that Mueller would bring Trump down because Trump was scared of him or thinking Stormy Daniels’ scammy lawyer was a hero for attacking Trump. Then we learn the truth and move on.

    But conservatives ARE friends with anyone who attacks their enemies, even after their evilness is exposed. They create their own reality and will justify anything if it helps them win. Not only do they not care that Russia is spreading propaganda against us, they’d only thank them if they knew and ask for more. Just like how Trump represents everything they hate, but he says he’ll save them from the evil liberals so that’s all that matters.

  9. omphaloscepsis says:

    This is likely redundant to many readers here, but for any who might not have seen it, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) posts links to 6 PDFs at this page:

    From Sen. Wyden’s remarks at the end of Vol. II:

    “XII. Additional Views of Senator Wyden

    . . . Increased transparency is another critical priority if the United States is to defend itself against foreign election influence campaigns. A clear lesson from 2016 is that the U.S. public needs information about influence campaigns prior to the election itself. That includes information about U.S. adversaries’ attempts to undermine some candidates while assisting others. In 2016, the specific intent of the Russians was not made public during the election. Intelligence related to Russian intent was not even made available to the full Committee until after the election, at which point I and other members called for its declassification. And it was not until the publication of the Intelligence Community Assessment in January 2017 that the public was finally provided this information. . . . “

  10. dadidoc1 says:

    Should Chad Wolf be charged as operating as an unregistered foreign agent? It would be nice to know the people involved in recommending him for a government job.

    • Ginevra diBenci says:

      Putin may not have recommended him, but I’m sure he was satisfied with Wolf’s work.

  11. harpie says:

    Wolf got a heads up about that, too, and used it as an opportunity to spin his own involvement.

    [pdf18/42] As I&A prepared the finalized product for dissemination on September 4, 2020, [so this would have been 48 hours before final dissemination, this time planned for 9/4/20] the new Acting USIA emailed the Acting Secretary [WOLF] to inform him about changes to the product’s content and dissemination process, and shared a draft of the product.20 […]

    [fn20 We were unable to interview the I&A official to ask why he believed this was necessary.]

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