Political News

DHS secretary pushes back on assessment that Russia meddled to help Trump

Posted May 22, 2018 10:39 a.m. EDT

— Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen appeared to push back Tuesday on the intelligence community's January 2017 assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin meddled in the 2016 US election in an attempt to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Emerging from a closed-door briefing with House members on election security for the midterms, Nielsen told reporters she believed Russians tried to sow discord in the 2016 election, but she was "not aware" they tried to help Trump win.

"I don't believe that I have seen that conclusion ... that the specific intent was to help President Trump win," Nielsen said when asked if she had any reason to doubt the assessment that the Russians were trying to help Trump. "I'm not aware of that, but I do generally have no reason to doubt any intelligence assessment."

Asked later about her comments, Nielsen said that they have tried to manipulate "public confidence on both sides."

"I do believe that Russia did try and will continue to try to manipulate on a whole variety of issues," she added.

Nielsen's comments put her at odds with the Intelligence Community Assessment released in January 2017, which concluded Russia meddled in the US election and aimed to boost Trump's campaign at the expense of Clinton's.

The assessment about Russia's goals has been a point of contention, as Trump has repeatedly declined to agree with it when asked, despite the fact that senior Trump administration national security officials have roundly said they concur with the assessment that was released in the final days of the Obama administration.

House Intelligence Committee Republicans also disputed the assessment that Putin was trying to help Trump, arguing there were "significant intelligence tradecraft failings" in reaching that conclusion.

But the Senate Intelligence Committee agreed with the intelligence community. In a statement released last week, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said that after a thorough review of the intelligence community's assessment, "We see no reason to dispute the conclusions." Trump's handpicked appointees to lead top US intelligence agencies, including FBI Director Christopher Wray and CIA Director-turned-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have testified to lawmakers that they agree with the conclusions of the January 2017 intelligence report.

"The Russian effort was extensive, sophisticated and ordered by President Putin himself for the purpose of helping Donald Trump and hurting Hilary Clinton," said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the panel.

The Intelligence Community Assessment that was released in January 2017 states: "We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments. We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment."

Special counsel Robert Mueller's February indictment of Russian officials over their social media campaign also referenced the assessment's conclusions, saying that the Russians "engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump."

Nielsen's comments on Tuesday came after a classified briefing for all House members on the federal government's efforts to secure state elections for the 2018 midterms. Some lawmakers have raised concerns that the federal government has not adequately prepared states for the continued threat from Russia and other countries to meddle in the upcoming elections.

After the briefing, Nielsen made the case that other state actors --- including Iran and China, along with Russia --- will try to meddle again in 2018. And she laid out what she believes is a comprehensive federal-state strategy on combating foreign inference.