Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Tuesday she was unaware of any intelligence assessment concluding that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to aid President Donald Trump’s campaign, even though the intelligence community concluded just that over a year ago.
Reporters asked Nielsen if she questioned a 2017 intelligence community assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed efforts to meddle in the presidential election to try and help President Trump. Nielsen said she was unaware of that assessment, which has been public for over a year.
“I don’t believe that I have seen that conclusion,” she told CNN’s Manu Raju. “That the specific intent was to help President Trump win ― I’m not aware of that, but I do generally have no reason to doubt any intelligence assessment.”
Nielsen’s comments come as top intelligence officials say Russia is likely to meddle again and the Department of Homeland Security is working with states to improve election security ahead of the 2018 midterms. Nielsen was on Capitol Hill Tuesday with FBI Director Christopher Wray and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, to brief members of Congress on election security.
Nielsen added that Russia had attempted to target “public confidence on both sides” in 2016 and would continue to do so in the future.
“We’ve seen them encourage people to go to a protest on one side. We’ve seen them simultaneously encourage to people to go the same protest on the other side. I think what they are trying to do is to disrupt our belief and our own understanding of what’s happening,” she said. “It’s an integrity issue of who is saying what and why and how that may or may not affect American behavior.”
In the 2017 assessment, the FBI, CIA and NSA all agreed that Russia interfered with a preference for Trump.
“We assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election, the consistent goals of which were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the report said.
“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,” it added.
Last week, the Senate intelligence committee, which has been investigating Russian interference in the election for over a year, affirmed the 2017 assessment from the intelligence community. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) the ranking member of the committee, on Tuesday urged Nielsen to read the 2017 report.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking member on the House Homeland Security committee, said in a statement he was “shocked” Nielsen seemed unfamiliar with the report.
“The fact that she did not seem aware of the report’s findings while briefing members of Congress on the very important topic of election security is appalling to all who have tried to make progress on this issue since 2016 with little help from Republicans or this Administration,” he said in a statement. ”I sincerely hope the Secretary’s comments today were not just rhetorical gymnastics to placate the President.”
Tyler Houlton, a DHS spokesman, said shortly after that Nielsen was familiar with the 2017 assessment. Houlton added that she was not undermining it.
“The Secretary has previously reviewed the intelligence community’s assessment and agrees with it – as she stated today and previously,” he said in a statement. “Russian goals included undermining faith in the U.S. democratic process and harming a candidate’s electability and potential presidency. Importantly, they targeted both major political parties.”
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to answer questions about whether he agreed with the 2017 intelligence community assessment.
“I don’t have any observations to make about it,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
McConnell also refused to weigh in on whether he thought it was appropriate for Trump to intervene in a Department of Justice investigation ― especially one concerning him and his 2016 presidential campaign.
The president last week directed the DOJ to investigate claims that the FBI surveilled his campaign prior to the election. The Justice Department, in turn, responded by asking its inspector general to look into Trump’s charge as part of an existing probe.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), meanwhile, called Trump’s “demand” for a Justice Department investigation “a blatant abuse of executive power.”
“The president’s behavior is the kind of grossly autocratic behavior we’d expect in a banana republic, not a mature democracy,” Schumer added.