This has been a dramatic week in American politics, which has driven home some core truths. Near the top of the list is a simple fact: Russian President Vladimir Putin favored Donald Trump’s Republican ticket in 2016, and his government took steps to attack our democracy in order to help put the current American president in office.
And yet, somehow, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen still isn’t sure.
“I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempt to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party,” Nielsen responded when asked about Russia’s intentions Thursday during the Aspen Security Forum.
“What we’ve seen on the foreign influence side is they were attempting to intervene and cause chaos on both sides,” she continued.
I’ve watched the clip of her comments a few times, trying to find a way to give Nielsen the benefit of the doubt, but I’m at a loss. Indeed, the DHS chief went on to say that she believes Russian interference was intended to “sow discord and get us all to fight against each other.” [Update: see below.]
But we already know better. Last week’s indictment from Special Counsel Robert Mueller spells out in great detail what Russian intelligence officials did, and Putin himself admitted on Monday that he wanted Trump to win the election.
This bolstered the intelligence assessment from the FBI, CIA and NSA, which also pointed to Moscow’s preference for Trump.
All of which raises the obvious question of why in the world the Homeland Security chief would say she hasn’t “seen any evidence” that’s already readily available.
Indeed, if this story seems familiar, it’s because we’ve been here before. In May, Nielsen also looked past the evidence and told reporters, “I do not believe that I’ve seen that conclusion that the specific intent [behind the Russian election attack] was to help President Trump win. I’m not aware of that.”
The cabinet secretary caused quite a stir with those comments. And yet, two months later, Nielsen managed to make the identical mistake.
It’s almost as if she’s trying to undermine her own credibility, which was already severely damaged. It was just last month, for example, that the DHS chief wrote via Twitter, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period,”
It followed Senate testimony Nielsen gave in which she said she didn’t know that Norway’s population is largely white.
It’s entirely possible that she says things like this in the interest of political self-preservation. In May, the president spent a half-hour berating Nielsen in front of the entire cabinet, apparently blaming her for the lack of progress on his immigration agenda, and reportedly prompting her to consider resigning.
With this in mind, maybe the DHS chief is scared of saying anything that might put her on Trump’s bad side, even if that means publicly rejecting reality.
But this is a mistake. Circling back to a point we discussed several months ago, it’s easy to forget just how massive the Department of Homeland Security is. The nation’s newest cabinet agency, created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, has nearly a quarter of a million employees, tackling a wide variety of tasks: DHS includes everything from FEMA to Customs and Border Protection to the Secret Service.
It’s therefore important for Americans to have confidence, not only in the department, but in its leadership. And while I hope there are no major national crises during Nielsen’s tenure, I wonder what would happen if she has to brief the public about an emergency, and many Americans are left to wonder whether the secretary can be counted on to tell the truth.
Update: At today’s event, the cabinet secretary went on to say she agrees with the intelligence community’s findings “full stop.” Reconciling this categorical statement with her other comments is difficult.