Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney urged former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen not to bring up concerns of potential Russian interference in the 2020 presidential election with President Donald Trump, the New York Times reported, citing unnamed administration officials.
Mulvaney told Nielsen in a meeting this year that concerns about future Russian interference “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level”, the newspaper quoted a senior administration official as saying in the official’s recount of the meeting.
The New York Times wrote, “the White House chief of staff, made it clear that Mr Trump still equated any public discussion of malign Russian election activity with questions about the legitimacy of his victory”.
According to the newspaper, Nielsen eventually dropped her plans to organise a White House meeting of cabinet secretaries to coordinate strategy for the 2020 presidential election. She instead organised her own meetings of agency heads and cabinet secretaries on at least two occasions, the paper said.
Nielsen was forced to resign earlier this month as Trump expressed his growing anger over the number of immigrants at the US-Mexico border.
In a statement to CNN about the New York Times report, Mulvaney said he didn’t “recall anything along those lines happening in any meeting”.
“In fact, for the first time in history, state, local and federal governments have coordinated in all 50 states to share intelligence, we’ve broadened our efforts to combat meddling by engaging the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the FBI among others, and we have even conducted security breach training drills to ensure preparedness”.
CNN also quoted an unnamed government administrator who said that officials “spent months and months trying to sound alarm at the White House about the need to take foreign interference more seriously and elevate the issue”.
The report comes less than a week after a redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s report on Russian intelligence in the 2016 presidential election was released.
“The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” the report said, dedicating hundreds of pages to Russian interference.
“The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome,” the report also said. It added that Trump’s campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts”.
But the report did not find evidence of a criminal conspiracy between Trump’s election campaign and Russia.
On Tuesday, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner downplayed Russia’s involvement, describing it as “buying some Facebook ads to try to sow dissent”.
“Quite frankly, the whole thing’s just a big distraction for the country,” he said at the Time 100 Summit despite Mueller’s findings. “It’s a terrible thing, but I think the investigations and all the speculation that happened for the past two years had a much harsher impact on democracy than a couple of Facebook ads.”
Trump has repeatedly called the Mueller probe a “witch-hunt” and “hoax”. His legal team declared Mueller’s report a victory.
Earlier this year, US intelligence officials said that although they had protected the 2018 US congressional elections from outside interference, they expected renewed and likely more sophisticated attacks during the 2020 race.
US adversaries will “use online influence operations to try to weaken democratic institutions, undermine alliances and partnerships, and shape policy outcomes,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee in January.
Asked last week about Russian interference in 2016, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Washington, DC, that “we will make very clear to them that this is not acceptable behaviour”.
He added that the administration had consistently raised concerns with Russia over interference in the US and other elections.
Trump has tried to cultivate good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and came under heavy criticism in Washington last year for saying after meeting Putin that he accepted his denial of election meddling, over the conclusions of US intelligence agencies. He later walked back on those comments.