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Russian Election Meddling Remains ‘Pervasive,’ Intel Chief Says

Coats: Kremlin wants to ‘weaken and divide the United States’

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a joint press conference after their summit last month in Helsinki, Finland. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a joint press conference after their summit last month in Helsinki, Finland. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

U.S. intel officials continue to see a “pervasive” effort by the Russian government to upend America’s political process, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Thursday.

“Pervasive” is how the former GOP Indiana senator described what U.S. intelligence officials have concluded is a “messaging campaign by Russia to weaken and divide the United States,” Coats said during the daily White House briefing. But what Russia is doing this election cycle is not as “robust” as two years ago — “so far,” he noted.

Despite President Donald Trump’s recent claim that Russia is trying to help Democratic candidates this time, Coats indicated intelligence officials do not see a specific party preference in current Russian actions.

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Russia continues trying to hack into American online networks, aiming to obtain information about candidates and U.S. government officials, he said. That tactic is one described in detail by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in court documents related to the Kremlin’s 2016 election meddling. 

Coats pointed a finger of blame at the Kremlin and independent Russian groups, saying all are trying to use things like hacks and social media to shake up the U.S. political system.

President Donald Trump has directed all U.S. intelligence agencies to make countering election meddling and election security their collective “top priority,” Coats told reporters, even though members of both parties on Capitol Hill have said the administration has yet to share its counter-meddling programs despite numerous requests.

To that end, John Bolton, the White House national security adviser, said at the same briefing that he sent a response letter to lawmakers Thursday after they wrote him with their concerns.

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Notably, echoing Trump, U.S. security officials said Russia is not the lone foreign player eager to jostle American politics.

“The scope of this foreign influence threat is both broad and deep,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said from the White House podium.

Coats said the DNI office is working closely with the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and other entities to track and combat election-related shenanigans.

“The reality is, it’s going to take us working together to hold the field,” Wray said. “This threat is not going away.”

Coats told reporters Russia’s aims are to divide Americans and “drive a wedge” between Washington and its longtime allies.

Bolton was pressed on the seeming disconnect between Trump in his Helsinki summit siding with the Russian leader’s denials over his own intel agencies and the officials’ Thursday warnings. Bolton responded that Trump “cares deeply” about countering meddling and safeguarding election systems.

And Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s top spokeswoman, said U.S. intelligence has concluded “a number” of other foreign actors are trying to interfere in the American political system.

Watch: McConnell Warns Russians to Keep Out of Elections, Schumer Wants More Than Words

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