A just-released assessment by U.S. intelligence officials finds Russia and Iran, joined by a handful of other countries and groups, did seek to influence the outcome of the November 2020 presidential election. But the assessment also concludes that, despite repeated warnings by a number of top officials, China ultimately decided to sit it out.
The declassified report, issued Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is the U.S. intelligence community's final take on foreign meddling in the hotly contested race, in which then-presidential candidate Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump.
Initially completed and shared with the Trump administration in a classified form in January, the unclassified version, required by law, seeks to give U.S. voters an overview of the threats and of their impact on American democracy.
While the assessment concludes no adversary managed to infiltrate critical systems or change how votes were cast, the conclusions on China could lead to new questions about how the intelligence was initially presented to the public.
"We assess that China did not deploy interference efforts and considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the US Presidential election," the newly released ODNI report said, adding it had "high confidence" in its finding.
"China sought stability in its relationship with the United States, did not view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk getting caught meddling, and assessed its traditional influence tools — primarily targeted economic measures and lobbying — would be sufficient to meet its goal of shaping U.S. China policy regardless of the winner," the report stated.
Those findings contrast with earlier warnings from intelligence officials who spent months warning voters of the potential threats, specifically calling out efforts by China along with Russia and Iran.
"China is expanding its influence efforts to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China's interests, and counter criticism of China," then National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina said in a statement issued last July, 100 days before the election. "Beijing recognizes its efforts might affect the presidential race."
Other top officials were even more adamant about the threat from China.
In August, then-Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe grouped China with Russia and Iran in an interview with Fox Business News.
"I don't want to say this is only about China," Ratcliffe said at the time. "China, Russia, Iran, other actors, are all trying to interfere or influence our elections for their own gain."
He added, however, that Beijing's efforts stood apart.
"China's using a massive and sophisticated influence campaign that dwarfs anything that any other country is doing," Ratcliffe said.
Another top Trump official, National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, echoed those thoughts less than a month later.
"The intelligence community has made very clear, first you have China, which has the most massive program to influence the United States politically," O'Brien told reporters at the time.
As for Iran, the ODNI report said Tehran "carried out a multi-pronged covert influence campaign intended to undercut former President Trump's reelection prospects — though without directly promoting his rival."
Both Russia and Iran also used their influence operations in an attempt to sow existing divisions in U.S. society and to undermine confidence in the democratic process.
In addition, the report warned a range of other foreign actors, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Cuba and Venezuela took steps to influence the outcome of the presidential election.
"Foreign malign influence is an enduring challenge facing our country," Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in a statement Tuesday.
"Addressing this ongoing challenge requires a whole-of-government approach grounded in an accurate understanding of the problem, which the Intelligence Community, through assessments such as this one, endeavors to provide," she added.
A separate report Tuesday, from the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, reaffirmed earlier findings that foreign adversaries failed to impact the tallying of ballots.
"We … have no evidence that any foreign government-affiliated actor prevented voting, changed votes, or disrupted the ability to tally votes or to transmit election results in a timely manner; altered any technical aspect of the voting process; or otherwise compromised the integrity of voter registration information of any ballots cast during 2020 federal elections," the report said.
The second report also rejected claims made after the November 2020 U.S. election that foreign governments, including Venezuela, Cuba and China, were in any way in control of critical election infrastructure to manipulate the election's outcome.
Such claims "are not credible," the Justice Department and DHS concluded.
Some key lawmakers, though, reacted to the reports by warning it is more critical than ever for the U.S. to maintain its guard.
"The problem of foreign actors trying to influence the American electorate is not going away," Democratic Senator John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. "Given the current partisan divides in this country, [it] may find fertile ground in which to grow."