Why did Trump's top officials lie about China — and Russia?

Before Merrick Garland took office last week, the new attorney general surely understood that he would face a difficult and almost-overwhelming set of problems — including reconstruction of the Justice Department after the ruinously partisan rule of his predecessor William Barr; overseeing hundreds of federal prosecutions of Jan. 6 insurrectionists; and dealing with the scandal detritus of the Trump regime, which may eventually involve indictments of the former president, his associates and even members of his family.

But this week, we learned of still more troubling issues that may require Garland's attention, when the department of homeland security and the director of national intelligence released declassified reports on foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election. The classified versions of those reports were on the attorney general's desk when he arrived for his first day of work, and what they indicate is the worst U.S. intelligence scandal since the fabricated reports that justified the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence summarized the views of the nation's intelligence and law enforcement agencies concerning foreign interference in the 2020 election. They found that yet again, Russia undertook strenuous measures to assist Donald Trump and his campaign, with the express purpose of keeping him in power. Law enforcement officials and counterintelligence analysts gathered substantial evidence showing that the Kremlin's spy apparatus, both military and civilian, used Trump's network of associates — including Republicans in both the House and Senate — to spread false stories about Ukraine, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. And as the report stated, the directive came from the top: "We assess that President Putin and the Russian state authorized and conducted influence operations against the 2020 US presidential election aimed at denigrating President Biden and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the US."

As might be expected, the report dismissed the fantasy propaganda spread by Trump's attorneys in the election's aftermath about mysterious communist entities that somehow controlled voting machines — and padded Joe Biden's vote totals from abroad. "We are aware of multiple public claims that one or more foreign governments — including Venezuela, Cuba, or China — owned, directed, or controlled election infrastructure used in the 2020 federal elections; implemented a scheme to manipulate election infrastructure; or tallied, changed, or otherwise manipulated vote counts," it noted, adding that investigations by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security found no evidence whatsoever to bolster those claims. It doesn't name Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani or any of the other legal and media figures who trumpeted those lies, but it doesn't need to.

Debunking those ridiculous characters is amusing and may prove interesting to state bar authorities with ethical jurisdiction over them. But the report's most disturbing implication concerns the behavior of government officials who misled the public and Congress about the role of China — and Russia.

Last summer, as Election Day drew near, the Trump administration's top officials, including the president himself and then-Attorney General William Barr, then-director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe and then-national security adviser Robert O'Brien, publicly misled the nation with false claims about alleged Chinese interference.

On two occasions, O'Brien asserted that Beijing's intelligence agencies were seeking to influence voters, even more than the Russians. "(T)he Chinese have taken the most active role," he claimed. Barr said the same thing, citing "intelligence" sources that showed China was superseding Russian as an electoral threat. And so did Ratcliffe, who proved himself to be a partisan Trump crony when he insisted on national television that "China is using a massive and sophisticated influence campaign that dwarfs anything that any other country is doing."

Yet according to the declassified report, there was no Chinese effort that came close to the scale or intention of the Russian campaign for Trump. "We assess that China did not deploy interference efforts and considered but did not deploy intelligence efforts intended to change the outcome of the US presidential election," the report concluded. So those loud warnings from Barr, Ratcliffe and O'Brien — as well as Trump — were knowing falsehoods.

The lies about China were part of a much broader scheme by Trump administration officials and cronies to rig the election, which can be traced back to the Ukraine blackmail scheme that led to the president's first impeachment. But the attempt by the nation's highest law enforcement and intelligence officials to minimize an actual foreign-influence campaign by fabricating a false one steers perilously close to aiding a hostile power.

Was the falsification coordinated by those officials and others? Were they ordered to disseminate the lies by the president? What statutes, if any, are implicated by their misconduct? What sanctions, if any, should be brought against them?

Attorney General Garland needs to learn the answers to those questions if he means to restore integrity to America's law enforcement and counterintelligence agencies — which, in this era, remain vital to our democracy