Russia is waging a “pervasive” campaign to undermine democracy and “divide the United States,” several of the nation’s top intelligence officials said Thursday in their latest castigation of the Kremlin.
“As I have said consistently: Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day,” Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, said at a White House press briefing on Thursday. “This is a threat we need to take extremely seriously, and to tackle and respond to with fierce determination and focus.”
The comments come just weeks after President Donald Trump met in private with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and then undermined the assessment of his intelligence chiefs, saying he believed Putin when he told him “it’s not Russia” behind the efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.
“I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he said during an extraordinary press conference after the closed-door talks.
Trump later walked back those statements amid widespread criticism, saying he accepted the “conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” adding a caveat that it “could be other people also.”
Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, said unequivocally that hackers, under the direction of Putin, were attempting to sow discord among Americans.
“What we see is the Russians are looking for every opportunity, regardless of party, regardless of whether or not it applies to the election, to continue their pervasive efforts to undermine our fundamental values,” Coats said Thursday.
Intelligence officials and lawmakers have been warning about efforts to influence elections as soon as the November midterms and into the next presidential election. Facebook this week also said it had deleted more than a dozen pages and profiles linked to “bad actors” linked to Russia-backed accounts from the last election.
During the briefing, which was also attended by Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, national security adviser John Bolton and National Security Agency chief Paul Nakasone, officials said Trump had “specifically directed us to make the matter of election meddling and securing our election process a top priority.”
“Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs,” Nielsen said. “Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and it has become clear that they are the target of our adversaries, who seek … to sow discord and undermine our way of life.”
But Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) lamented Trump’s inaction surrounding the meddling issue.
“The intelligence community has been very active on this, the Department of Homeland Security has been active on this,” he told CNN. “While the president has been inconsistent in his tweets, and some of the messaging that he’s put on it, he’s the only one in the government that hasn’t been paying attention to this.”
Several lawmakers have already gone public to say they have been the subject of hacking attempts akin to those on the Democratic National Committee in 2016. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said aides in her office had received phishing emails in recent days and that members of both parties were being targeted.
“We’re hearing that this is widespread … with political parties across the country, as well as with members of the Senate,” she said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said last week that Russian hackers had tried, unsuccessfully, to break into a government computer network.
“Russia has used numerous ways in which they want to influence through media ― social media, through bots, through actors that they hire through proxies,” Coats said of the ongoing attacks. “All of the above and potentially more. I can’t go into any deep, deep details on what is classified. But it is pervasive. It is ongoing with the intent to achieve their intent, and that is to drive a wedge and undermine our democratic values.”
This article has been updated with comment from Lankford.
Willa Frej contributed reporting.