President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden had very different responses when asked during the presidential debate Thursday night about threatening emails, purportedly from a pro-Trump group called the Proud Boys, that were sent to voters in Florida and other states earlier this week.
When asked by moderator Kristen Welker about the emails — which the FBI said Wednesday were likely sent by Iranians and possibly Russians bent on sowing distrust in U.S. elections — Biden answered that “any country that interferes with American elections will pay a price.”
Trump took a different tack. He used the question to repeat his opinion that Russia and Iran want him to lose the election, even though the U.S intelligence community concluded that Russia wanted to help Trump win the 2016 election.
“I knew all about that through John — [Director of National Intelligence] John Ratcliffe, who is fantastic — he said the one thing that’s common to both of them is that they want you to lose because there’s been nobody tougher on Russia,” Trump said.
Democrats said Ratcliffe, a former Texas congressman, is a partisan actor whose claim that the emails were sent to hurt Trump should not be trusted.
The House Homeland Security Committee — which is run by Democrats — said Wednesday on Twitter that, “These election interference operations are clearly not meant to harm President Trump,” and then added that Ratcliffe has “politicized the Intelligence Community to carry water for the President.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Ratcliffe’s remarks at a news conference that Iran was trying to damage Donald Trump were not conveyed in a classified briefing he received.
“I did receive a classified briefing this afternoon on this, and so I can’t discuss the details but I can tell you one thing it was clear to me, that the intent of Iran in this case, and Russia in many more cases is to … basically undermine confidence in our elections,” Schumer said on MSNBC. “This action I do not believe was aimed, from my surmise, was aimed at discrediting President Trump.”
Florida Reps. Michael Waltz, a Republican, and Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat, asked FBI director Christopher Wray for an official briefing on Russian and Iranian interference in the 2020 election on Thursday.
A joint statement on Thursday from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, and ranking member Mark Warner, a Democratic senator from Virginia, warned of Iranian and Russian attempts to interfere in the 2020 election but did not include Ratcliffe’s claim that Russia wants Trump to lose.
“It is clear that Iran is now actively seeking to sow dissent and divide us, much like Russia did in 2016 and continues to do today,” Rubio and Warner said. “To our adversaries, we reiterate DNI Ratcliffe’s warning against interfering in America’s electoral process. Republicans and Democrats are united when we say that continued attempts to sow dissent, cast doubt on election results, or disrupt our election systems and infrastructure will necessitate a severe response.”
The exchange between Biden and Trump came one day after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Iran and Russia have taken “specific actions to influence public opinion” ahead of the Nov. 3 election, suggesting that Iran might be behind the threatening emails sent to Florida voters this week.
The emails, which appeared to have targeted Democratic voters, told recipients to vote for Trump on Election Day “or we will come after you.” The Proud Boys, a far-right group whose leader is based in Miami, denied involvement. Digital forensic specialists confirmed that the emails came from a server in Estonia, though the sender could be located elsewhere.
Florida — the nation’s largest swing state where the election is expected to be tight — was among at least four states targeted by the emails, including Arizona, Pennsylvania and Alaska. In Florida, Alachua, Collier, Brevard, Escambia, Flagler and Citrus counties are among those that reported emails to the FBI on Tuesday.
The emails appeared to have come to a halt after the FBI accused Iran and possibly Russia of being behind the attacks to influence the U.S.
Biden and Trump debated at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Their second debate, which was supposed to be held at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami, was canceled after the Commission on Presidential Debates requested a virtual matchup after Trump tested positive for the coronavirus and spent time in the hospital. Trump refused to participate in a virtual debate, and both candidates instead held dueling town hall events last Thursday.
Tampa Bay Times elections coverage
VOTER GUIDE: Access the Tampa Bay Times’ Know Your Candidates guide at tampabay.com/voterguide.
HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on early voting locations, rules for voting by mail and more.
FELONY CONVICTION? Here are Florida’s rules for registering to vote.
WHY A FLORIDA CITY’S BLACK VOTERS BEAT NATIONAL AVERAGES: Turnout is 10 percent over the national average. That’s been true for generations. The story of Chester James Sr. helps explain why.
POSTAL SERVICE CONCERNS: What’s going on with the U.S. Postal Service and should Florida be worried?
SIGN UP FOR ELECTION TEXT MESSAGES: Get voting information, news updates and ask political editor Steve Contorno questions about the candidates and issues, directly through your phone.
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription. Or click here to make a donation to the Tampa Bay Times Journalism Fund.