Homeland security secretary 'not aware of' intelligence community's conclusion Russia wanted to help Trump win election

Key Points
  • Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tells reporters she's "not aware of" Russia's intent to help President Trump win the 2016 election.
  • Nielsen says, however, "I generally have no reason to doubt any intelligence assessment."
  • The intelligence community's January 2017 report states that "We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump."
  • A Homeland Security press secretary says the reporter's question "did not reflect the specific language in the assessment itself."
Homeland Security Secretary 'not aware' of intel community's conclusion Russia wanted Trump to win election

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Tuesday she was "not aware of" the intelligence community's conclusion, first stated in January 2017, that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election with a clear preference for Donald Trump.

Nielsen made the remarks to reporters outside a congressional security briefing on election security.

She was asked by a reporter 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."

"I do not believe that I've seen that conclusion," Nielsen said.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, left, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee address the media after a briefing on election security with House members in the Capitol Visitor Center on May 22, 2018.
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

"That the specific intent was to help President Trump win, I'm not aware of that," she added, "but I do generally have no reason to doubt any intelligence assessment."

The intelligence community, whose member include the FBI, CIA and the National Security Agency, released a report in January 2017 — between the election and Trump's inauguration as president — that said Russia favored Trump.

"We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump," the report said.

The report went on to say: "We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary [Hillary] Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence."

Homeland Security press secretary Tyler Houlton took issue with the wording of the reporter's question. In an email to CNBC, Houlton said:

"The Secretary has previously reviewed the Intelligence Community's assessment and agrees with it — as she stated today and previously. She also very clearly articulated today that the Russian government unequivocally worked to undermine our democracy during the 2016 election. Russian goals included undermining faith in the US democratic process and harming a candidate's electability and potential presidency. Importantly, they targeted both major political parties. As the Secretary reiterated — their intent was to sow discord in the American electoral process. However, we have no evidence that any ballots were changed or counted incorrectly as a result of Russian interference.

"The intelligence assessment language is nuanced for a reason. The Secretary agrees with that assessment. But the question asked by the reporter did not reflect the specific language in the assessment itself, so the Secretary correctly stated she had not seen the conclusion as characterized by the reporter.

"The Department is well aware of the threat posed by Russian election interference, and today's classified member briefing was one of many opportunities by the Department and the Secretary to be transparent with Congress and the American people about efforts to ensure the integrity of our elections."

Earlier in her remarks, Nielsen said the president has been "very clear that he agrees with the intel community" with regard to Russia's "attempt to hack or otherwise through cyber means, influence our election."

Asked once more if she disagreed with the conclusion that Russia's cyber campaign was waged with the intention of helping Trump, Nielsen said, "I do believe that Russia did and will continue to try to manipulate Americans perspective on a variety of issues."

Nielsen's view appears to align with the House Intelligence Committee's Republican majority. That committee recently concluded its own investigation of Russian election meddling.

In a summary ahead of its final report, the committee's majority broke with the intelligence community's conclusions "with respect to Putin's supposed preference for candidate Trump."

But leaders from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is also conducting a probe of Russian interference, said in a statement last week that it agreed with the intelligence community's view on Russia's preference for Trump.

"The Russian effort was extensive, sophisticated, and ordered by President [Vladimir] Putin himself for the purpose of helping Donald Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton," said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the committee's vice chairman.

The chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said: "We see no reason to dispute the conclusions."