Ex-DHS chief wanted cabinet-level election threat meetings, White House refused: Officials

Trump was worried interference reports would undercut legitimacy, Mueller said.

April 24, 2019, 8:26 PM

In recent months before resigning from her position, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was prevented from convening senior cabinet meetings at the White House on potential future Russian interference in the upcoming 2020 U.S. elections, two senior administration officials familiar with the matter told ABC News.

Nielsen, whose department is charged with defending U.S. infrastructure including elections against cyber attacks, had been sounding the alarm publicly before the 2018 midterms. After the midterms, she pushed for the White House to convene a cabinet meeting to address the issue head-on, but the White House "refused," according to one of the officials, forcing DHS to start convening meetings with principals on its own.

Nielsen was also told by White House staff the issue did not need to be brought to Trump’s attention, according to the official.

"The White House didn’t want to focus on the issue at a principals level, period," the official told ABC News.

President Donald Trump speaks as he meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office, April 2, 2019, in Washington D.C.
Evan Vucci/AP

The last in-person principal-level cabinet meetings on the issue occurred before the November 2018 midterm elections, and since then there have been none, according to three senior administration officials. One said there have been smaller discussions about the topic among top national security officials.

“We are far, far better prepared than we were in 2016, but we are still way behind where our adversaries are. It’s clear the administration hasn’t made foreign interference a high enough priority. That’s a feeling felt throughout the interagency," one of the officials said.

The New York Times first reported on Wednesday White House pushback to Nielsen’s efforts. The Times reported that acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told Nielsen specifically not to bring it up to the President, reportedly telling her it “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level.”

In a statement to ABC News, Mulvaney said, “I don’t recall anything along those lines happening in any meeting, but unlike the Obama administration, who knew about Russian actions in 2014 and did nothing, the Trump administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections, and we’ve already taken many steps to prevent it in the future.”

The Obama administration did take some action against Russian election interference including private warnings and sanctions.

PHOTO: Voters cast their ballots aat a  polling location in Brooklyn, N.Y., Nov. 8, 2016.
Voters cast their ballots aat a polling location in Brooklyn, N.Y., Nov. 8, 2016.
John Taggart/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A spokesperson for the DHS did not respond to a request for comment. Nielsen resigned earlier this month. Garrett Marquis, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, said in a statement, “National Security Council staff leads the regular and continuous coordination of the whole-of-government approach to addressing foreign malign influence and ensuring election security.

“Any suggestion that this Administration is giving less than full-throated effort to secure America’s elections is patently false,” he said.

The redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s 448-page report sent to Congress last week laid out both what he described as Russia’s “sweeping and systematic” effort to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, as well as Trump’s concern that acknowledgment of that interference could undercut his electoral victory.

“After the election, the President expressed concerns to advisors that reports of Russia’s election interference might lead the public to question the legitimacy of his election,” the report said.

Even in the lead up to the midterm election lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including intelligence officials expressed frustration over what they saw as the administration's lack of clear strategy to combat more Russian interference.

After the publication of the Mueller report, experts said it was “sobering” to see all of Russia’s efforts to undercut American society and the political process all in one place.

The U.S. intelligence community and previous Mueller indictments had already accused Russia of three interference efforts in 2016: a hack-and-leak operation that targeted democratic figures, a widespread online influence campaign designed to sow social and political discord in the U.S. and cyber attacks targeting election infrastructure itself, such as voter databases. But last week, the Mueller report laid out, in narrative detail, the push by the Kremlin to weaken American democracy – a strategy that officials and experts say continues today.

The 2018 midterm elections did not see the hack-and-leak strategy or any especially significant attacks on voting infrastructure, but foreign online influence operations continued unabated, an intelligence community assessment said. Top U.S. security officials have been vocal in their warnings that Russia, potentially along with China, Iran and others who learned dark lessons from 2016, are likely to take aim at the 2020 race.

“The risk of election interference by a foreign government is an existential national security threat,” John Cohen, a former senior Department of Homeland Security official and current ABC News contributor, said after the Mueller report’s release. “While some agencies like the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Cyber Command are working to mitigate this threat, the U.S. government can and must do more to address the threat to our election process, but that requires visible leadership from the White House and the president himself.”

Former Trump campaign advisor Chris Christie told the ABC News podcast “The Investigation” on April 18 that if he were speaking to the president he would tell him to “shift focus” now to the 2020 threat – both for practical and political reasons.

“You know, bring in [CIA Director] Gina Haspel and [FBI Director] Chris Wray, bring in the DNI [Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats] and say, ‘Listen, we now have a roadmap for what the Russians did, what are we doing to prepare for the 2020 election? I authorize you to do everything it is you need to do to protect the integrity of that election and we’ll work with Congress to make sure… if you need additional funding that you’ll get it in order to protect the integrity of our elections.’

“I have often thought that that would be a really productive thing for him to do, and a smart thing for him to do politically,” Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and current ABC News contributor, said.

Coats, in a statement to ABC News, pushed back on claims that the administration did not take Russian meddling in the election seriously.

“The implication by anonymous sources that the Administration has not or is not taking this issue seriously is false and minimizes the work that continues to be advanced by countless individuals to ensure the integrity of our electoral process,” he said in the statement.

Last week another spokesperson for the White House National Security Council declined to comment on Trump’s personal interest in Russian interference, but pointed to moves by the administration to counter foreign election interference, from broadening offensive cyber rules to paving a pathway for sanctions for those “determined to have interfered in a United States election,” to the Department of Justice indictments against suspected Russian operatives.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that he would warn his Russian counterparts about the “steadfast requirement that Russia not engage in activity that impacts the capacity of our democracy to be successful."

“And we will make very clear to them that this is unacceptable behavior and as you’ve seen from this administration, we will take tough actions which raise the cost for Russian malign activity,” he said. “And we’ll continue to do that.”

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