President Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, still isn’t convinced that Russia interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of her boss.
During an interview at the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday, Nielsen — one of the top officials overseeing the country’s election security — indicated she believes that Russian agents were attacking “both sides.”
“I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party,” Nielsen said. “I think what we’ve seen on the foreign influence side is they were attempting to intervene and cause chaos on both sides, right? … I think the overall purpose is to sow discord, and get us all to fight against each other rather than understand who the enemy is.”
Nielsen’s comments are contradicted by the consensus conclusion of the U.S. intelligence agencies. In January 2017, the intelligence community released a consensus report which found that “Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016” that aimed to “denigrate Secretary Clinton” because of the Russian government’s “clear preference for Trump.”
“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,” the assessment says.
The findings of the intelligence community were affirmed earlier this month by a bipartisan group of senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“The Committee has spent the last 16 months reviewing the sources, tradecraft and analytic work underpinning the Intelligence Community Assessment and sees no reason to dispute the conclusions,” wrote Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC), in a statement accompanying his committee report’s release. “The Committee continues its investigation and I am hopeful that this installment of the Committee’s work will soon be followed by additional summaries providing the American people with clarity around Russia’s activities regarding U.S. elections.”
But you don’t have to take the intelligence community or Burr’s word for it. During their joint news conference in Helsinki on Monday, Putin himself admitted he wanted Trump to win the election.
Asked if he wanted Trump to win, Putin said, “Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.–Russia relationship back to normal.”
Putin’s comments about wanting Trump to win, however, were omitted from the White House’s transcript of the event.
Nielsen has already established a reputation as having a view of Russian interference during the 2016 campaign that is out of step with the intelligence community and impervious to facts.
Following a meeting about election security measures in May, Nielsen was asked by CNN’s Manu Raju if she “has any reason to doubt the January 2017 intelligence community assessment that said it was Vladimir Putin who tried to meddle in this election to help President Trump win?”
Nielsen responded as though she had never heard of the assessment before.
“I do not believe that I’ve seen that conclusion,” Nielsen said. “That the specific intent was to help President Trump win, I am not aware of that — but I generally have no reason to doubt any intelligence assessment.”
Later, Raju followed up, asking Nielsen if she has “any disagreement” with the assessment’s conclusion “that Putin orchestrated this cyber campaign with the intention of helping Donald Trump.”
Nielson dodged the question by asserting that Russia attempted to “manipulate public confidence on both sides.”
“I think what they’re trying to do in my opinion, and I defer to the intelligence community, is just disrupt our belief and our own understanding of what is happening,” Nielsen said.
DHS subsequently released a statement that sought to clarify Nielsen’s remarks — but that falsely claimed her comments were not at odds with the intelligence assessment’s unequivocal conclusion that “Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016” that aimed to “denigrate Secretary Clinton” because of the Russian government’s “clear preference for Trump.”
President Trump, meanwhile, has spent this week trying to walk back comments he made during his joint news conference with Putin on Monday, in which he indicated he accepts the Russian president’s denials of involvement in election interference, even though they are at odds with the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies.
A day later, Trump made an absurd attempt to explain away the controversy by claiming that when he said “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Putin who interfered in the election, what he really meant to say was “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be.”
But even while he was trying to walk his comments back, Trump indicated he still doesn’t accept the intelligence community’s conclusion. After saying that “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” the president immediately indicated he was lying.
“It could be other people also,” Trump added. “There’s a lot of people out there.”