Kirstjen Nielsen won't say whether Russian meddling favored Trump

However, the DHS secretary said it would be "foolish" to think Russia stopped meddling in U.S. elections.
by Julia Ainsley /  / Updated 

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ASPEN, Colo. — Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen on Thursday declined to explicitly say whether Russia's interference in the 2016 election favored Donald Trump and would not commit to reuniting nearly 2,500 migrant children with their parents by the court-ordered deadline.

"I haven't seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party," Nielsen told NBC News National Correspondent Peter Alexander at the Aspen Security Forum, in an interview that focused heavily on Russian meddling and the controversy of separating migrant children from their parents.

When pressed to say explicitly whether Russia favored Trump and Republicans in its influence campaign and in its hacking of Democratic Party emails, Nielsen only said that she agreed with the assessment of the intelligence community.

The assessment found that Russian efforts favored Trump and the Republican Party, but Nielsen would not definitively comment on that piece of the report.

"Russia was absolutely attempting to interfere in our election systems," said Nielsen.

Trump cast doubt on the assessment of the intelligence community earlier this week, which found that Russia interfered in the election and favored his campaign. While he has walked back his comment at the Helsinki summit that Russia likely didn’t interfere with the 2016 election, on Tuesday he said others besides Russia might have interfered, and on Wednesday that he didn’t think Russia was still trying to interfere with U.S. elections.

Nielsen, however, said "it would be foolish" to think Russia is not still interfering with the U.S. electoral system.

"They have the capability, they have the will. We've got to be prepared," she said.

Asked whether countries other than Russia had participated in the attack on the 2016 U.S. election, Nielsen said, "We did not see other nation states involved in the election system meddling."

Nielsen's comments follow FBI Director Chris Wray's assertion Tuesday night that "Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and that it continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day."

Deadline for reunifications

Alexander asked Nielsen if the administration would meet the July 26 deadline for reuniting 2,500 parents with their children.

"We will do our best but we will not cut corners. Again this is about the protection of the child," Nielsen said.

Lawyers for the ACLU have argued that U.S. Health and Human Services and DHS should not be using the same vetting processes to reunite children with biological parents as they would to place them with nonrelated sponsors like foster parents. Some children under 5 were not reunited with their parents because a parent had a citation for a DUI; others have not been reunited because their parents were deported.

DHS will work to find deported parents, but Nielsen made no commitment to how speedily children would be reunified with parents who were ordered to leave the country.

Nielsen also said that border security has weakened as a result of the reversal of Trump's "zero tolerance" policy that separated parents from children.

"We have no border control now," Nielsen said, commenting on the current policy that does not allow for the criminal prosecution of parents crossing the border illegally with their children.

Nielsen also declined to say whether the systematic separation of migrant children from their parents was a form of child abuse and placed the blame for the policy on Congress's failure to pass immigration reform. She also declined to say whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions's April announcement of the zero tolerance policy was a surprise to her.

The Trump administration has one more week to reunite nearly 2,500 migrant children with their parents in order to comply with a court order. Nielsen said she would not cut corners, like forgoing DNA tests and criminal background checks of those claiming to be parents, in order to meet the deadline.

Nielsen said the trip for children to the U.S. from Central America is so dangerous and rape is so common that all girls over age 10 are given pregnancy tests upon crossing the border.

Nielsen said she has a very professional relationship with Trump and that he listens to her opinions. Trump reportedly berated Nielsen at a White House meeting earlier this year and some reports suggested she might resign.

"When I've heard those suggestions, they are in situations where I would never consider resigning," Nielsen said. "As long as I can help America, I will continue to do my job."

Nearly a year has passed since white nationalists convened a violent protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one counterprotester was killed. Trump was criticized after the event for saying there were good people on both sides.

Nielsen condemned violence in all forms Thursday, but did not speak out specifically against white nationalism.

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