“The first thing we all agree on is that irrespective of efforts that were made in 2016 by foreign powers, it is the universal conclusion of our intelligence communities that none of those efforts had any effect on the outcome of the 2016 election.”
— Vice President Pence, in an interview with Mike Allen of Axios, Feb. 14, 2018
Asked whether Russia would try to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections, the vice president sounded a reassuring note. U.S. intelligence agencies, he said, determined that foreign attempts to sway the 2016 presidential race were ineffective.
The consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies is that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an unprecedented level of interference in the 2016 election. The Justice Department has appointed a special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to investigate Russia’s meddling and its ties to the Trump campaign, and several congressional committees are also investigating.
Pence, of course, came out on the winning side of the 2016 presidential race as President Trump’s running mate. Trump reportedly has chafed at the investigations into Russian meddling because they suggest his narrow, unexpected victory against Hillary Clinton was somehow tainted.
Did U.S. intelligence agencies conclude that foreign interference had no effect on the 2016 election?
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testified at a Feb. 13 hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Russians were not done interfering with U.S. elections and that they would continue to use propaganda, false personas and social media to try to influence races in 2018.
“Foreign elections are critical inflection points that offer opportunities for Russia to advance its interests both overtly and covertly,” a statement Coats submitted said. “The 2018 U.S. midterm elections are a potential target for Russian influence operations. At a minimum, we expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople, and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.”
The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima and Shane Harris reported that this assessment “stands in contrast to President Trump, who has repeatedly voiced skepticism of Russian meddling in the 2016 election” and that “the disconnect between Trump and his senior-most intelligence advisers has raised concerns that the U.S. government will not be able to mount an effective plan to beat back Russian influence operations in the upcoming midterm elections.”
Two days after the Senate hearing, in a one-on-one interview, Allen asked Pence whether he agreed with Coats’s assessment.
Pence said that U.S. officials were on alert but that “the accepted view” was that U.S. intelligence agencies had determined foreign efforts to influence the 2016 election were not successful. It was not exactly a slip of the tongue — Pence spoke in unequivocal terms and later repeated his assertion as he wrapped up his answer.
“Let me say again … that it is the universal conclusion of our intelligence communities that there was no impact on the outcome of the 2016 election from any foreign meddling in our elections, and I believe that bears repeating,” Pence said. “The American people can be confident about the results of the election in 2016, but going forward we’re going to continue to lean into this effort, continue to ensure that our state-based election systems and all of the infrastructure of this country are protected from foreign interference.”
However, a January 2017 assessment from the U.S. intelligence community — which includes the CIA, FBI, NSA and other agencies — contradicts Pence’s claim. The spy agencies concluded with “high confidence” that Putin had ordered an interference campaign, but they stopped short of saying whether it worked.
“We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election,” according to the assessment. “The U.S. intelligence community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze U.S. political processes or U.S. public opinion.”
In 2016, according to the assessment, Russia tried to undermine confidence in the U.S. democratic system and in Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and potential presidency through a series of efforts including cyberespionage and propaganda on Russian-controlled news platforms such as RT and Sputnik, by hacking the email accounts of Democratic officials and groups including Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee and then disseminating hacked communications through WikiLeaks.
“We also assess 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,” the assessment says. “All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.”
This is the declassified version of the assessment, meaning it lacks highly classified details the intelligence agencies uncovered. But the declassified report says “its conclusions are identical to those in the highly classified assessment but this version does not include the full supporting information on key elements of the influence campaign.”
Asked about Pence’s remarks, a White House official declined to comment but pointed us to similar statements from CIA Director Mike Pompeo in October 2017.
“Pompeo … was asked at an event in Washington if he could say with absolute certainty that the election results were not skewed as a result of Russian interference,” according to Reuters. “Pompeo replied: ‘Yes. Intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.’”
The top spokesman for the CIA, Dean Boyd, later made a clarification to Pompeo’s remarks. “The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed, and the director did not intend to suggest that it had,” Boyd said.
The Pinocchio Test
Several investigations are still in progress, and we do not yet know whether Russian interference affected the outcome of the 2016 election. Pence claimed U.S. spy agencies had looked into this and concluded that foreign efforts to influence the election were fruitless.
The vice president was unambiguous in his interview with Axios (which promptly published its own fact-check) and made his claim twice.
Equally unambiguous was a January 2017 assessment from the intelligence community: “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.” That report is declassified, but its conclusions are “identical” in the classified version, it says.
We rarely have such strong evidence a politician’s claim is false. Contrary to what Pence said, U.S. intelligence agencies did not evaluate whether Russian interference affected the outcome of the 2016 election. It remains an open question whether that interference had an impact on the race. For this, the vice president earns Four Pinocchios.
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