Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen earlier this year that any conversations about Russian meddling in the 2020 election shouldn't be elevated to President Donald Trump because he still tied the subject to questions about the legitimacy of his own election, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
In the months before Nielsen was forced to resign earlier this month, she tried to focus the White House on preparing for Russia's efforts to influence next year's election, the publication reported. She became increasingly worried about Russia's sustained efforts in the U.S. leading up to and after the 2018 midterm elections, officials told The Times.
But Mulvaney made clear that conversation shouldn't reach Trump, saying it "wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level,” a senior administration official told The Times.
Nielsen eventually gave up on trying to convene a White House meeting of Cabinet secretaries to coordinate a strategy to combat Russian meddling in 2020. Her frustrations were described to The Times by three senior Trump administration officials and one former Trump administration official.
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Mulvaney said in a statement in response to The Times' report, "I don't recall anything along those lines happening in a meeting."
He added that the administration "will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections, and we’ve already taken many steps to prevent it in the future."
That includes federal, state and local government coordination in all 50 states to share intelligence, broadened efforts to combat meddling by engaging the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and the FBI, and "security breach training drills,” he said.
Special counsel Robert Mueller wrote in his report released last week that several advisers at the time — including White House communications director Hope Hicks, chief of staff Reince Priebus, press secretary Sean Spicer and Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, all of whom have left the administration — told his team that Trump was repeatedly concerned that stories about Russian interference cast doubt over the legitimacy of his 2016 election.
On Tuesday, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, downplayed Russian interference in 2016, saying it amounted to "a couple of Facebook ads."
"You look at what Russia did, buying some Facebook ads to try to sow dissent and do it, and it’s a terrible thing," Kushner said at the Time 100 Summit. "But I think the investigations and all of the speculation that’s happened for the last two years has had a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple of Facebook ads."
On Facebook, Russia's influence campaign reached as many as 126 million people, Mueller noted in his report, which also detailed Russia's efforts on other social media platforms and its hacking of top Democratic officials' emails.
Mueller ultimately "did not establish" that Trump's campaign "coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities."