A top state election official pressed Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Friday to explain why President Donald Trump continues to downplay the threat of Russian hacking while the nation’s intelligence agencies and members of the president’s Cabinet warn that Russians are likely to interfere again.
The exchange came Friday during a meeting between a handful of secretaries of state and Nielsen. Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos (D) said he told Nielsen it was good to hear top intelligence officials warn of Russian hacking this year, but that Trump was sending a confusing signal by seeming to buck their assessment.
Nielsen said the president recognized the interference, but declined to further elaborate, according to Condos. The Vermont secretary of state, who is the president-elect of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said he had a similar exchange with Christopher Krebs, a DHS official who oversees cybersecurity for the department. Condos has previously made similar public comments about the contradicting messages sent by the intelligence community and White House.
DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the exchange.
The exchange underscores the frustration state election officials face as they gear up to try and protect elections from potential Russian interference this year. Russians scanned election systems in 21 states in 2016 and penetrated systems in a small number of states, but did not change any vote totals, DHS cybersecurity head Jeanette Manfra told the Senate Intelligence Committee in June. In January of 2017, the FBI, CIA and NSA released a joint assessment saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed hacking of the 2016 U.S. election.
Top intelligence officials told Congress last week that Russia is already interfering in the 2018 midterm elections and held a classified briefing over the weekend for election officials across the country on electoral threats. Several legislative proposals to improve U.S. election security have stalled in Congress since the 2016 election.
Unlike members of the intelligence community and his Cabinet, Trump has declined to issue a similarly clear warning about Russian interference. He has said both that Russia meddled in the 2016 election but also that he believed Putin when he denied interfering. He has also said Russia could have interfered, but that it also could have been a “400 pound genius.”
After special counsel Robert Mueller detailed Russian interference in a 37-page indictment Friday, the White House released a statement that seemed to acknowledge the idea of some Russian interference. In a Sunday tweet, Trump said he never denied that Russia meddled, a claim numerous fact-checkers have debunked.
While Trump has sent mixed messages about foreign election interference, DHS has been working with states to provide security reviews and improve information sharing, and to better assess election security threats. Many state election officials have expressed frustration that it took until September for the department to notify them if their systems had been targeted by Russians. Several states are also eyeing a return to paper ballots and encrypting election data.