The White House on Thursday trotted out five top national security officials in an effort to show the administration is confronting Russian efforts to interfere in the midterm elections.
“The president has specifically directed us to make the matter of election meddling and securing our election process a top priority, and we have done that,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said during a surprise appearance in the White House press briefing room.
Coats was joined by national security adviser John Bolton, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone, who detailed their agencies’ efforts to address the problem.
“In regards to Russian involvement in the midterm elections, we continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Coats said.
The show of force comes as the administration is facing doubts over whether it is doing enough to combat Moscow’s election interference and how seriously President Trump takes the threat.
Trump has repeatedly wavered on the question of whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election and if it continues to attempt to interfere in U.S. elections.
Officials on Thursday went further, saying without a doubt that Moscow meddled in that election and is already engaging in efforts related to the 2018 contests.
“The threat is not going away. Russia attempted to interfere in the last election and continues to do so to this day,” Wray said.
“Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs,” Nielsen said.
They also sought to reassure Americans that the Trump administration is doing everything it can do address the problem.
“We’re throwing everything at it,” Coats said.
Some of the officials, including Nielsen and Wray, met in New York this week with Vice President Pence and business leaders at a cybersecurity summit to encourage them to collaborate on countering Russian interference efforts.
Coats said Thursday the intelligence community has not seen the same kind of “robust campaign” by Russia in this election, compared to the 2016 contest, and Nielsen offered assurances that voting systems overseen by state and local governments are now more secure against hackers.
But the officials rattled off several examples of how Russia is seeking to carry out influence campaigns and other similar activities.
Coats said Moscow is trying to “hack” into systems used by U.S. officials and candidates, perhaps a reference to the attempted cyberattacks against Sen. Claire McCaskill‘s (D-Mo.) staffers that was reported last week.
McCaskill, considered one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats facing reelection, called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a thug and a bully” in response.
Those types of actions have set off alarm bells on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are urging the administration to adopt stronger deterrents against Russia and are considering imposing their own penalties, including sanctions.
Bolton wrote in a letter to Senate Democrats released Thursday that Trump has directed a “vast, government-wide” effort to protect elections from foreign influence, including existing sanctions and collaborations with election officials and private companies.
But it remains unclear if that will assuage lawmakers, given the president’s past comments and that no new initiatives were announced.
“Glad to see the White House finally do something about election security — even if it’s only a press conference. Now if only it was actually backed up by anything the President has said or done on Russia,” tweeted Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The briefing came on the heels of an announcement from Facebook this week that it suspended more than 30 “inauthentic” accounts that it found were associated with a coordinated campaign to spread disinformation ahead of the November elections.
The company said it had not confirmed that Russians were behind the inauthentic accounts, but Nielsen said shortly after the announcement that she saw “no reason” it wouldn’t be Russia.
The officials on Thursday repeatedly referenced Russia when discussing ongoing interference efforts, saying the country seeks to undermine democratic institutions.
Wray said “progress is being made” in combating the use of social media in foreign influence campaigns, citing an partnership between the FBI and the private sector.
— Brett Samuels and Morgan Chalfant contributed to this report.
BY JORDAN FABIAN – 08/02/18