Nielsen's statement appeared to directly contradict the findings of a 2017 intelligence assessment on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election that concluded Putin was interested in hurting Clinton's chances and later helping those of Donald Trump.
She made the remarks in response to a reporter's question after holding a classified meeting on 2018 election security with members of the House of Representatives.
Asked if she had any reason to doubt Vladimir Putin tried to help President Trump win, Nielsen answered she was "not aware" of the conclusion that Putin's "specific intent was to help President Trump win."
A spokesman for Nielsen later said told ABC News that Nielsen has been consistent in her support of the intelligence community findings on Russian meddling and that she was simply taking issue with the premise of the question.
A declassified version of the January 2017 report, "Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections," found that Russia's goals "were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency." The report also says clearly that, as the influence campaign evolved, "Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump."
It does not say, however, that Putin's aim was to help Trump from the outset but instead says at that point, the Russians were intent on hurting Clinton. Therefore, Nielsen may have simply been taking issue with the reporter's question, without saying so directly.
But given a chance to clarify her remark moments later, she would not directly answer whether she believed Putin ever tried to help Donald Trump, which the intelligence assessment clearly says he eventually did.
"I do believe that Russia did and will continue to try to manipulate Americans' perspective on a whole variety of issues," Nielsen said.
Nevertheless, the intelligence assessment was clear on the point that, eventually, Putin's aim was to help Trump. "We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him," the assessment read.
However, Republicans on the deeply divided House Intelligence Committee recently broke with the assessment of their counterparts in the Senate as well as the intelligence community, issuing a report late last month that concluded Putin did not favor a particular candidate.