ASPEN, Colo. — Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Thursday that Russia undoubtedly interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but declined to say directly that those efforts were aimed at helping elect Donald Trump.
“Russia was absolutely attempting to interfere in our election systems,” Nielsen said during an interview at the Aspen Security Forum. She endorsed the U.S. Intelligence Community assessment of Russian meddling "full stop," she said later.
But pressed by moderator Peter Alexander of NBC News, Nielsen down played that the effort was aimed to benefit Trump, calling it “an effort to attack certain political parties … more than others” and saying Russia’s primary purpose is to “sow discord” in the U.S.
“I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party,” Nielsen said. “I think what we’ve seen on the foreign influence 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’s in Syria, both sides.”
“So, no, I would not necessarily say that was the purpose,” she said. “I think the overall purpose is to sow discord and get us all to fight against each other rather than understand who the enemy is.”
Pressed further during an audience question-and-answer session, Nielsen again underscored her support for the election interference assessment, but again ducked whether Russia’s aim was to help Trump and hurt his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
"I agree with intel community’s assessment. Full stop," Nielsen said, though she still did not say whether Russia aimed to help Trump and disadvantage Clinton.
Nielsen also predicted Russia will likely attempt to interfere in upcoming elections, adding said the Homeland Security Department was working to help prepare states for it.
"I don’t think there’s any question in the intel community or at DHS that Russians attempted to infiltrate and interfere with our electoral system,” Nielsen said. “They have the capability. They have the intent.”
“What we’re doing at DHS is to work with states to prepare on that election infrastructure piece. That’s the piece we have lead on,” she said. “But I don’t think there’s any doubt that they did it, and I think we should all be prepared, given that capability and will, that they’ll do it again.”
The myriad agencies in the U.S. Intelligence Committee unanimously concluded that Russia had interfered in the U.S. elections to aid Trump and damage Clinton. And Trump appears to have finally endorsed those findings as well, after considerable back-and-forths.
On Wednesday, though, he appeared to undercut the Intelligence Community’s conclusions and a recent statement by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, when he said the Russian government is no longer trying to interfere in the U.S. political process. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later attempted to walk back the statement, saying that Trump simply said "no" to answering additional questions from reporters and that he hadn’t said Russia wasn’t attempting to undermine U.S. elections.
On Wednesday, in Aspen, FBI Director Chris Wray said he stands by the intelligence community’s assessment on the 2016 election meddling and emphasixed Russia is still working to “sow divisiveness” in the U.S.