House Democrats are questioning Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s commitment to improving election security after she told reporters Tuesday 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.
“The fact that she did not seem aware of the report’s findings while briefing members of Congress on the very important topic of election security is appalling to all who have tried to make progress on this issue since 2016 with little help from Republicans or this Administration,” House Homeland Security Committee ranking Democrat Bennie Thompson (Miss.) said in a statement. “I sincerely hope the Secretary’s comments today were not just rhetorical gymnastics to placate the President.”
Nielsen met with House members in a closed-door briefing on election security, which included updates from Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray.
Following the meeting, the three administration officials released a joint statement thanking members for their “level of engagement” and noting that “with primaries already underway across the United States, and the general election less than six months away, it is critical — now more than ever — to safeguard and secure our election infrastructure.”
But Democratic members questioned how officials planned to prevent future election interference if they were at odds over what happened in 2016.
“If you’re not in agreement about what happened . . . I don’t understand how you could adequately protect us,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said. “How do you say we’re looking out for the next election when there’s not even consensus about what Russia did in the last one?”
A similar conflict exists in Congress, where the Senate and the House Intelligence Committees have reached very different conclusions about Russia’s intentions. Though House Intelligence Committee Republicans wrote in a report that the intelligence community had not followed its own best practices when it determined that Russia was trying to help Trump, the Senate Intelligence Committee released interim findings this month that agreed entirely with the intelligence community. Trump championed the House Intelligence Committee Republicans’ argument.
Given all of the attention surrounding the matter, House Democrats found Nielsen’s claim about being in the dark to be disingenuous.
“To make a statement that she’s unaware of the specific evidence the Russians sought to help one of the candidate in the last presidential election shows a shocking either disregard of the facts or lack of preparedness,” said House Intelligence Committee ranking Democrat Adam B. Schiff (Calif.). “Like so many Cabinet members, they want to say what the president wants to hear — but that’s not their job.”