President Trump’s homeland security secretary said Tuesday that she was unaware that the intelligence community concluded Russian leader Vladimir Putin interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential race to help elect Mr. Trump over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“Do you have any reason to doubt the January 2017 intelligence community assessment that said it was Vladimir Putin who tried to meddle in the election to help President Trump win?” a reporter asked Department of Homeland Security Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen as she exited a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill.
“I do not believe that I’ve seen that conclusion, that the specific intent was to help President Trump win,” Ms. Nielsen responded. “I’m not aware of that. But I do generally have no reason to doubt any intelligence assessment.”
Ms. Nielsen’s response seemed to suggest she is unfamiliar with the findings reached by the U.S. intelligence community and published in a January 2017 report, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” which accused Mr. Putin of trying to help the 2016 Trump campaign.
“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” the report’s authors wrote. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. 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. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.”
Ms. Nielsen, who took office after the report’s publication, was asked about its findings after a briefing on election security with FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
“What we have seen the Russians do is attempt to manipulate public confidence on both sides,” Ms. Nielsen said. “So we’ve seen them encourage people go to a protest on one side; we’ve seen them simultaneously encourage people to go to that same protest on the other side. So I think what they’re trying to do, in my opinion, and I defer to the intel community, is just disrupt our belief and our own understanding of what’s happening. It’s an integrity issue of who is saying what and why and how that may or may not affect an American’s behavior in what they’re voting for.”
“The intelligence assessment language is nuanced for a reason,” said DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton. “The secretary agrees with that assessment. But the question asked by the reporter did not reflect the specific language in the assessment itself, so the secretary correctly stated she had not seen the conclusion as characterized by the reporter.”
Russia used state-sponsored hackers, internet trolls, propagandists and other operatives to damage the 2016 Clinton campaign and generally disrupt the race, according to the January report. Mr. Putin has denied involvement, and Mr. Trump, for his part, has repeatedly questioned whether Russians actually targeted Democrats during the 2016 election.
“I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?” Mr. Trump memorably said during a September 2016 presidential debate.
As of last week, however, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee was firm in finding that Mr. Putin himself personally ordered an attack on the 2016 election.
“The Russian effort was extensive, sophisticated, and ordered by President Putin himself for the purpose of helping Donald Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton,” committee Chairman Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, and Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat and the panel’s vice chair, said in a joint statement.
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