NBC's Peter Alexander asked Nielsen about the report's finding not just that Russia favored Trump but that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered the influence campaign.
Nielsen offered a softer conclusion: “What I would say is it’s government actors — Russian government actors. I think we can all draw a conclusion on what that means.”
But the report is explicit on this point. It does not say it was the Russian government and that Putin was probably involved by extension; it says Putin ordered the whole thing. Here's what it says (emphasis added):
We assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election, the consistent goals of which were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.
Nielsen's comments seem to mirror her boss's own apparent doubts about Putin's role. In an interview with CBS News on Wednesday, Trump for the first time blamed Putin for the interference — but only because Putin, as president, would be responsible for anything happening on his watch. Trump, like Nielsen, seemed to want to allow others to draw a conclusion that the intelligence community has already firmly drawn. Both seemed to want to avoid saying “Putin ordered this.”
Nielsen was then asked specifically about Russia favoring Trump, and she appeared to suggest that she only meant Russia's attacks on election infrastructure weren't so clearly aimed at helping one side or another.
“I haven't seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party,” she said. “I think what we’ve seen on the foreign influence side is they were attempting to intervene and cause chaos on both sides. Right? Whether it was in Charlottesville, where we saw them on both sides. Whether it was in Syria — both sides. So no, I would not say that was the purpose. I would say the overall purpose was to sow discord and get us all to fight against each other rather than understand who the enemy is.”
It's true the intelligence community found that the overall purpose was — and even Russia's preference for Trump derived from — its apparent desire to destabilize the West. Trump became the conduit for that. It's also true that election infrastructure, which Russia allegedly attacked in more than 20 states, is under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security. So Nielsen was talking about how this pertains to her Cabinet department.
But it's also interesting that Nielsen feels the need to argue for such a fine distinction — to say Russia's goals in targeting infrastructure may not have been so specifically about helping Trump. Why is that a relevant distinction? And why would the goal necessarily be any different? Would Putin really order interference but say that only part of it should be geared toward helping Trump? It's a possible distinction without much of a difference.
Update: Nielsen's spokesman pointed to other comments she made Thursday, in which she said, "I agree with the intel community's assessment -- full stop. Any attack on our democracy, which is what that was, whether it's successful or unsuccessful, is unacceptable. It is an attack on our democracy. Election security is national security. ... I absolutely believe their assessment. What we need to do at DHS is take the information they provide us and make sure the states and that they can prepare and prevent any Russian interference in our election systems.”
A skeptic would say she was looking for something to which to point to suggest that this wasn't all about helping Trump, which is a message that seems tailored for a very specific Audience of One. It's also very notable that Nielsen repeatedly invokes the words “both sides.” That was a Trump mantra both after the Charlottesville violence and earlier this week while standing alongside Putin at a news conference. Whether it was her intention or not, it's clear that refrain is what Trump likes to hear.
Which seems to be the great uniting factor of all these types of comments. The most repetitive example is officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Pence claiming the intel report says Russia's interference didn't actually benefit Trump. The report says nothing of the sort — it explicitly says it wouldn't judge such a thing, and that thing is completely unknowable — yet even House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) this week claimed it was clear that Russia had “no material effect” on the results. These officials seem to have decided that saying these things is the price of doing business with Trump.
While any one utterance may not be a huge deal, the totality of them gives people a false impression of what happened in 2016. And the act of people such as Nielsen seeking to tone down or parse the report to make it more favorable toward Trump means the actual findings may not be well understood or taken as seriously.