House Democrats are questioning Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s commitment to improving election security after she told reporters that she is unfamiliar with a key finding in the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election: that the Kremlin intended to help President Trump win.
Several top members of the party said they are unsure whether Nielsen was being serious or simply playing politics when she said she was unaware of the intelligence community’s conclusions. They surmised she might have been trying to avoid upsetting Trump, who — along with House Republicans — has sought to discredit the idea that Russia favored his candidacy over that of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
After Democrats mocked Nielsen’s professed ignorance, the Department of Homeland Security went into damage control. However, its statement didn’t entirely exonerate her; in fact it seemed to double down on the message that the aim of the Russian scheme wasn’t meant to hurt Hillary Clinton specifically. DHS press secretary Tyler Houlton said in a statement Tuesday that Nielsen
“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.”
But Russia didn’t help both sides equally; its spies and operatives weighed in for Trump’s benefit. That was the unanimous conclusion of intelligence professionals. As my colleague Aaron Blake points out, the language in their January 2017 report was straightforward. (“We also assess [Russian President Vladimir] 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. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.”) Blake also notes that the DHS spokesman offered another explanation for his boss’s comment, with Houlton saying that “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.” Make what you will of that, but the DHS still would not acknowledge that Nielsen was aware of the very specific finding that contradicts weeks and months of Trump’s attempts to deny that he was given a helping hand by Russians.
We find it remarkable that Nielsen would choose to appear ignorant, if not dim, rather than admit to facts the president doesn’t like to hear. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the heads of our intelligence agencies have acknowledged that the aim was to help Trump. She nevertheless persists in her refusal to speak truth to the American people. Even casual news observers know that, from the hack and release of Democratic National Committee emails, the anti-Clinton social media themes, the anti-Clinton rallies that its operatives arranged and the multiple contacts with Russians offering “dirt” on Clinton. Apparently acknowledging reality in the Trump administration is a firing offense.
More seriously, she would do well to recall that she took an oath to defend the Constitution, not her boss. She works for the taxpayers, not for Trump personally. Even if she and other White House spinners don’t take that distinction to heart, they might want to think practically about their futures. Many of the White House staffers are young and will have decades of working years ahead. What employer would want an employee so comfortable insulting the intelligence of the public, so lacking in character, that they’d rather make up a ridiculous excuse than be truthful? Not impressive and prestigious ones, for sure.