WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen drew criticism from Democrats on Tuesday when she said she was unaware of the intelligence community's finding that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election in support of Donald Trump.
"I do not believe that I've seen that conclusion that the specific intent was to help President Trump win. I'm not aware of that,” she told reporters after briefing House members about ongoing election security threats.
Nielsen quickly tried to clarify her remark, saying she had "no reason to doubt any intelligence assessment."
But when pressed about whether she believed the intelligence community conclusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a cybersecurity campaign with the intention of helping Trump, Nielsen answered that "Russia did and will continue to try to manipulate American’s perspective on a variety of issues."
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As recently as last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee announced it supported the widely reported conclusions reached by the U.S. intelligence community following the 2016 election.
Some House Republicans continue to cast doubt about Russia's involvement in the election, focusing their efforts on uncovering whether the FBI potentially infiltrated Trump’s campaign and what role the Obama administration played in approving surveillance of Trump aides.
Shortly after the briefing, Reps. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., and others called for the creation of a second special counsel to investigate the Department of Justice and for Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to hold a vote on a GOP resolution accusing the DOJ of misconduct throughout the 2016 presidential election.
Nielsen also dismissed concerns that the president was downplaying the threat from Moscow.
"I think the president's been very clear that he agrees with the intel community that the Russians did attempt to hack or otherwise through cyber means, influence our election, and he has remained committed," she said.
Some of the few House members who attended Tuesday's election security briefing said that they viewed Nielsen's comments as evidence that it's unlikely the administration is doing much to curb future influence in elections.
"If you're not in agreement of what happened, how we're so vulnerable, who was responsible, what Russia sought to do, I don't understand how you can adequately protect us in this upcoming election," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.
Nielsen told reporters that the administration is prioritizing a back-up system like paper ballots and that regular audits can help determine if ballots are tampered with.
DHS press secretary Tyler Q. Houlton later said that Nielsen had, in fact, reviewed the intelligence community's assessment and agreed with it, and that her initial response had only appeared to suggest otherwise because "the question asked by the reporter did not reflect the specific language in the assessment itself."
Houlton added that Russian goals in 2016 had included "undermining faith in the US democratic process and harming a candidate’s electability and potential presidency," but did not mention any candidate by name. "Importantly, they targeted both major political parties," said Houlton.