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Pence condemns Russian meddling, an issue that has vexed Trump

Vice President Pence on July 31 said the White House accepts the conclusion of the intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. (Video: C-SPAN)

NEW YORK — Vice President Pence on Tuesday affirmed the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia sought to influence the 2016 election, stating firmly what President Trump has been reluctant to say.

“While other nations certainly possessed the capability, the fact is Russia meddled in our 2016 elections,” Pence said, speaking at a government cybersecurity conference here hosted by the Department of Homeland Security.

“That is the unambiguous judgment of our intelligence community, and as the president said, we ‘accept the intelligence community’s conclusion,’ ” Pence said.

Facebook says it has uncovered a coordinated disinformation operation ahead of the 2018 midterm elections

With those remarks, included in what was his first speech on cybersecurity, Pence sought to tamp down the controversy ­fueled by Trump’s reluctance to unambiguously condemn Russia for its interference in American politics.

“Russia’s goal was to sow discord and division and weaken the American people’s faith in our democracy,” Pence said. “And while no actual votes were changed, any attempt to interfere in our elections is an affront to our democracy, and it will not be allowed. The United States of America will not tolerate any foreign interference in our elections from any nation-state — not from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea or anyone else. As President Trump said, ‘We’re not going to have it.’ ”

The vice president’s address came hours after Facebook announced that it had investigated and shut down an elaborate disinformation operation focused on divisive messaging targeting November’s midterm elections. The social media company said it was unable to link the activity to Russia but that there were similarities to Kremlin-backed efforts undertaken two years ago.

Trump has been criticized for appearing to be soft on Moscow — most recently at a Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin — and insufficiently engaged in countering potential Russian interference in U.S. democracy.

Trump chairs election security meeting but gives no new orders to repel Russian interference

Earlier in the day, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen also called out the Russian government for its effort to undermine faith in U.S. democracy and for what she called a “brazen, multifaceted” campaign to influence the 2016 elections.

“Let me be clear,” she said. “Our intelligence community had it right. It was the Russians. They know that. We know that. And we cannot let it happen again.”

She issued a warning to “any foreign adversary” considering such an attack. “The United States will no longer tolerate or accept your interference. You will be exposed, and you will pay a high price.”

Pence said that over the past year, the president has directed the administration to create a “whole-of-government” approach to strengthen election security. On Friday, Trump convened the National Security Council, including the heads of the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency, DHS and the Director of National Intelligence, to hear updates on their progress. The meeting, which lasted less than an hour, was not deeply detailed, and Trump issued no new directives as a result, according to administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

Federal agencies are focused on detecting and countering Russian and other foreign attempts to interfere in U.S. democracy and to disrupt election systems and other critical infrastructure.

“The adversaries are crowdsourcing their attacks,” Nielsen said. “So we, too, are crowdsourcing our response . . . . The era of cyber-complacency has passed. The era of cyber-consequences has begun.”

Pence noted that the FBI has formed a Foreign Influence Task Force to identify secret foreign attempts to infiltrate the United States and undermine democracy. DHS has launched the Election Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which all 50 states have joined, in an effort to prevent intrusions and attacks.

Nielsen on Tuesday announced the launch of the department’s National Risk Management Center to help U.S. companies that want to work with the federal government to strengthen cybersecurity.

Derek Hawkins contributed to this report.