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Intelligence Officials Temper Russia Warnings, Prompting Accusations of Political Influence

WASHINGTON — Intelligence officials told lawmakers behind closed doors on Tuesday that Russia was not directly supporting any candidates as it tried to interfere in the presidential race, an assertion that contradicted an earlier briefing and prompted accusations from Democrats that the Trump administration was politicizing intelligence.

“The I.C. has not concluded that the Kremlin is directly aiding any candidate’s re-election or any other candidates’ election,” an unclassified summary given to lawmakers said, using shorthand for the intelligence community. “Nor have we concluded that the Russians will definitely choose to try to do so in 2020.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi challenged the officials during the first of two briefings on Tuesday, saying their assertions differed from a classified hearing last month where a top election security official discussed Russia’s preference for President Trump’s re-election, according to three people present for Tuesday’s session. The previous briefing drew angry responses from House Republicans.

Mr. Trump attacked the briefings earlier in the day, accusing Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, of dwelling too much on Russian election interference. “There is another Russia, Russia, Russia meeting today,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “It is headed up by corrupt politician Adam ‘Shifty’ Schiff, so I wouldn’t expect too much!”

Ms. Pelosi arranged the House briefing, not Mr. Schiff. Senators were briefed separately. Mr. Schiff fired back at Mr. Trump, noting that the officials briefing lawmakers were the president’s “own people,” including several agency chiefs. “We will insist on the truth, whether you like it or not,” Mr. Schiff said on Twitter.

Two intelligence officials pushed back on any suggestion that the officials were politicizing their assessments. They said career professionals had made the conclusions about Russia and that they represented the current view of various intelligence agencies — rooted in the underlying facts.

One of the officials said that some intelligence officials’ previous analysis about Russian intentions in the election had gone beyond the underlying intelligence gathering, which showed that Russia was trying to sow confusion and division across the American political spectrum. The official said that the overreaching analysis was a problem separate from last month’s briefing and blamed the impasse over that session on Democrats, saying they had mischaracterized it.

But for Democrats, Tuesday’s presentation was the clearest evidence so far of the effect of Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist who took over last month as acting director of national intelligence.

Before the day’s briefings, Kashyap Patel, a former White House and congressional aide who moved to Mr. Grenell’s office last month, met with intelligence officials and imposed limits on what they could tell Congress about foreign influence operations, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Patel’s comments struck some intelligence officials as an inappropriate politicization of the briefing. Some have been wary of his partisan background since his arrival as a top aide to Mr. Grenell. Mr. Patel was once a top investigator for Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California and former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and played a key role in helping Republicans try to undermine the Russia investigation by writing a memo that accused law enforcement officials of abusing their power.

Mr. Patel spoke to officials in Mr. Grenell’s office; it is not clear whether his directions were conveyed to other intelligence agencies. A spokesman for the National Security Agency said no one conveyed any limits on the testimony of its director, Gen. Paul M. Nakasone.

The intelligence officials who briefed lawmakers did not intend to contradict last month’s testimony even as they avoided repeating the assessments about Russian interference presented there, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Their statements were carefully worded, emphasizing the lack of evidence of direct support by the Kremlin to any candidate. The summary given to lawmakers did mention Russian “media messaging” that has criticized members of both parties to “signal Russia’s unhappiness.”

Russia’s focus, one official said, is less on the election and more on the political debate and policy discussions around the vote.

Russia has once again stepped up its interference efforts, officials have said, exploiting existing divisions among Americans to sow chaos. In particularly, Kremlin intelligence operatives have sought to amplify the messages of white supremacist groups to try to incite violence.

The decision by the administration to speak so precisely struck Democrats as an attempt to play down Russia’s current operations.

“From what I read in 2017 and was briefed on, nothing has changed on what the Russians are doing,” said Representative Mike Quigley of Illinois, a Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. He said that included the idea that the Kremlin favored Mr. Trump, but declined to discuss Tuesday’s classified briefing.

Still, many Democratic lawmakers were unconvinced and some said the briefing struck them as an attempt to minimize the threat from Russia. Others said Tuesday’s presentation should have been made public.

“The American people should know the threat that exists,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut.

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