In case there was any doubt that the Trump administration isn't taking the issue of Russian interference in U.S. elections terribly seriously, just look at the comments of the people who should know better.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was the latest to appear unfamiliar with the intelligence community's 16-month-old report on Russian meddling, saying Tuesday of its finding that Russia aimed to help Donald Trump in the 2016 election: “I don’t believe I’ve seen that conclusion.”
Here's the rather bizarre exchange:
CNN'S MANU RAJU: Do you have any reason to join the January 2017 intelligence community assessment that said it was Vladimir Putin who tried to meddle in this election to help President Trump win?
NIELSEN: I do not believe that I've seen that conclusion. ... That the specific intent was to help President Trump win? I'm not aware of that.
But the intelligence community's report is crystal clear on this point. In fact, it constitutes the second and third paragraphs of the report's “Key Judgments” (emphasis added):
We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.
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. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.
This finding was reaffirmed as recently as last week by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is run by Trump's fellow Republicans. It was a big headline, in fact. “The Russian effort was extensive, sophisticated, and ordered by President Putin himself for the purpose of helping Donald Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton,” Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the committee, and Mark R. Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the panel, said in a joint statement.
And this point has been repeatedly debated publicly, given that Trump has cast doubt on it and that Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee controversially ruled that Russia didn't aim to help him (and were then forced to neuter that finding after two fellow Republicans on the panel revolted). How Nielsen could be unaware of this finding is mind-boggling, especially given her perch as the head of effort to protect the American homeland.
But this is hardly the first time that a key member of Trump's Cabinet has butchered or otherwise seemed to question the intelligence community's report. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to cast doubt on the report on more than one occasion, even as he was serving as CIA director. At one point, he reportedly met with a conspiracy theorist who questioned the report's findings. At another point, he contended that “the intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.” The assessment, in fact, says explicitly that it wouldn't address this subject.
And, again, this is something that has been debated repeatedly in public, because other members of the administration, including Trump, keep misstating it — including Vice President Pence recently. How the director of the CIA could misstate such a central portion of his own intelligence community's report was just odd.
Unless, of course, something else is going on. Trump's approach to the Russia investigation has been to constantly muddy the waters, using claims that often don't comport with reality or seem to have any factual basis. Perhaps this has rubbed off on those around him, with those officials emulating his talking points. Or perhaps they are wary of saying something that might anger a president who doesn't even like to talk about Russian interference in private — much less publicly lend credence to that idea that he wouldn't have won without Russia's help. (Nielsen, it bears noting, is currently the subject of Trump's ire and, according to some reports, almost resigned after he chewed her out.)
Nielsen seemed to echo some of Trump's rhetoric Tuesday, saying Russia engaged in an “attempt to manipulate public confidence on both sides.” When repeatedly informed that the assessment did say that Russia aimed to help Trump, Nielsen would say only, “I do believe that Russia did and will continue to try and manipulate Americans' perspective on a whole variety of issues.” She clearly either didn't know what the report said or didn't want to acknowledge what it said.
The fact that a leading Cabinet official like Nielsen can't speak authoritatively about even the basics of the intelligence community suggests that something is up — and that it's definitely not Russian interference's spot on the administration's priority list.
Update: DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton shared this statement: "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."