DHS blocked warning that Russia planned to smear Biden’s mental health from law enforcement: report

Trump has repeatedly echoed the smears while his campaign bought ads questioning Biden’s “geriatric mental health”

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published September 2, 2020 10:45AM (EDT)

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The Department of Homeland Security has withheld an intelligence bulletin from law enforcement agencies that warned of a new Russian election interference scheme since July, according to internal documents obtained by ABC News.

A draft bulletin titled "Russia Likely to Denigrate Health of US Candidates to Influence 2020 Election" was submitted to the department's legislative and public affairs office on July 7, according to the report. The bulletin warned that Russia would try to smear Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's mental and physical health, which President Donald Trump and his campaign have done repeatedly.

But just an hour after it was filed, acting DHS chief of staff John Gountanis put a hold on its release.

"Please hold on sending this one out until you have a chance to speak to [acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf]," he wrote in an email obtained by ABC.

The bulletin, which was intended to be distributed to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, still has not been released.

The bulletin warned the agencies with "high confidence" that Russians planned to push "allegations about the poor mental health" of Biden to "influence the outcome of the 2020 election."

Like other intelligence warnings, the document mentioned that Iran and China have criticized Trump but focused on Russia's attempts to smear Biden.

The bulletin noted that the attack targeting Biden was similar to the 2016 effort to "[raise] serious doubts about [then-candidate Hillary Clinton's] physical capability," which Trump also repeatedly echoed.

A DHS spokesperson told ABC News that the bulletin was "delayed" because it "failed to meet the agency's standards."

But former DHS officials pushed back on that claim.

"High confidence means what it sounds like — that they are highly confident that their assessment is accurate and they don't use that language very often," former DHS Assistant Secretary Elizabeth Neumann told the outlet.

The DHS spokesperson said that the draft "lacked the necessary context and evidence for broader dissemination."

"After briefing the Acting Secretary and he asked questions," the spokesperson said, "[Office of Intelligence and Analysis] career leadership decided to delay the product for further review."

John Cohen, the former DHS undersecretary for intelligence, told ABC News that the decision was concerning given the Trump administration's efforts to avoid releasing intelligence that looks bad for the president.

"We are hearing concerns being raised publicly that, in this administration, intelligence community reporting is being modified or blocked for political reasons — or to not anger the president," he said. "By blocking information from being released that describes threats facing the nation, it undermines the ability of the public and state and local authorities to work with the federal government to counteract the threat."

The Trump campaign insisted that it did not "need or want any foreign interference."

"There's no question that the President has been tougher on Russia than any president before him, imposing sanctions and expelling diplomats, in contrast to the Obama-Biden Administration, which choked in the face of Russian interference," campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh told ABC News. "President Trump will beat Joe Biden fair and square."

The Biden campaign countered that the administration was specifically blocking a "crucial finding that Russia is disseminating false and scurrilous attacks on the health of Joe Biden — one that aligns with Trump's own constantly-backfiring attacks."

Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said the report showed "the lengths to which Donald Trump will go to manipulate and conceal intelligence for partisan political purposes."

"And why would he do this?" he added. "Because Russia and the Trump campaign are speaking from the same script of smears and lies."

Trump and his campaign have frequently launched attacks against Biden's mental health, labeling him "Sleepy Joe."

"Biden doesn't know he's alive," the president said on Tuesday, even as he fended off rumors that he suffered a series of mini-strokes, which he appears to have stoked himself.

"[Biden] can't even talk about his record," Trump claimed during an interview last month. "He forgets his record. He forgets everything."

The Trump campaign launched a TV ad in June seeking to depict Biden's mental capacity as diminishing and in May questioned whether Biden's "geriatric mental health" made him "too old" to face the 74-year-old president.

A month after the quashed DHS bulletin, the Office of Director of National Intelligence released a statement warning that "Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate" Biden and that "some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump's candidacy on social media and Russian television."

Trump rejected the findings, insisting — despite years of corroborating evidence — that "the last person Russia wants to see in office is Donald Trump, because nobody's been tougher on Russia than I have, ever."

Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe announced shortly after that his office would abruptly end in-person election security briefings to Congress over concerns about leaks.

Democrats threatened to subpoena Ratcliffe in response to the move, and Biden condemned the decision as "nothing less than a shameless partisan manipulation" of intelligence to help Trump's interests.

"This intelligence paid for by taxpayers doesn't belong to Donald Trump," House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told CNN. "It doesn't belong to the intelligence agencies. It belongs to the American people."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregate Department Of Homeland Security Donald Trump Election 2020 Joe Biden Politics Russia