This post has been updated with statements from the Democratic National Committee, and from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the former party chair.
Much of the conversation around Russian interference in the 2016 election has centered on two core topics: the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russian officials, and whether Russia was actually able to change vote tallies by hacking into state election databases or voting machines.
But a high-ranking former Obama administration official served up a reminder Wednesday that Democrats were caught up in all of this, too — and said they could have done more to stop it.
Jeh Johnson, who served as Obama's homeland security secretary from 2013 to 2017, had harsh words for his old boss's party at a House Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday, saying that the Democratic National Committee refused to accept help from the Department of Homeland Security, even after its email systems were hacked.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Johnson said at one point in the hearing. “In retrospect, it would be easy for me to say that I should have bought a sleeping bag and camped out in front of the DNC in late summer.”
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) asked whether the DNC accepted his department's help after they knew about the hack.
“To my disappointment, not to my knowledge, sir,” he answered. “The response I got was, the FBI had spoken to them, they don't want our help, they have CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm.”
Johnson explained that the DHS had actually helped other departments with suspected hacks, and had been able to stem the damage — but the DNC just wasn't interested.
“I recall very clearly that I was not pleased that we were not in there helping them patch this vulnerability,” Johnson added.
A DNC spokesperson said later on Wednesday disputed Johnson's telling of the events, saying the committee “worked closely” with the FBI in the wake of the hack.
“The DNC has been in regular contact with the FBI for many months and the FBI confirmed the DNC has provided all the information it needed to make its assessment,” said DNC spokeswoman Adrienne Watson in a statement emailed to The Washington Post. “The DNC was contacted by DHS months after the DNC worked closely with the FBI to remedy the intrusion. The DNC then provided DHS with detailed information about the intrusion.”
Watson also disputed Johnson's timeline, saying DHS “didn’t reach out to DNC until August 2016.”
While the mere fact of Johnson's frustration isn't surprising, his willingness to discuss it publicly, the better part of a year later, makes it clear what a baffling series of decisions it took for the DNC not to accept help. Remember: This was a Department of Homeland Security that reported to President Obama, a president from the same party.
“It sounded even like this was a Republican administration trying to intrude into the DNC,” King remarked, incredulous. “I just find it very hard to comprehend.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who served as chair of the DNC from 2011 until she resigned in July 2016, gave The Washington Post a statement after Wednesday's hearing, saying officials did not contact her personally about the hack:
“At no point during my tenure at the DNC did anyone from the FBI or any other government agency contact or communicate with me about Russian intrusion on the DNC network. It is astounding to me that the Chair of an organization like the DNC was never contacted by the FBI or any other agency concerned about these intrusions. As a member of Congress, I had the unique clearance to hear any classified briefing that would be involved in such an intrusion, and the FBI clearly should have come to me with that information. They did not. If the FBI or any other government agency ever came to me with that information, I would have gladly welcomed their help. In fact, back in March, Former FBI Director Jim Comey testified that he wished he had personally done more to notify the DNC of the Russian intrusion.”
By now, the rest is history: Hackers leaked the contents of internal DNC emails, and the damage was done.
But for Democrats looking to keep the conversation around the Russia investigation focused on President Trump, Wednesday's hearing was a loud reminder: The DNC made its share of mistakes when targeted by hackers.