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Director of National Intelligence: ‘Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs’

A handful of top US national security officials said Thursday that Russia is continuing to pursue its efforts to interfere in the US political system and said President Donald Trump has directed them to make countering election interference a top priority.

“We continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Thursday from the White House briefing room. “The President has specifically directed us to make the matter of election meddling and securing our election process a top priority.”

The top officials’ presence in the White House briefing room amounted to the administration’s most significant effort to date to convey that a whole of government effort is being undertaken to combat Russian attacks on US democracy, which Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said is “in the crosshairs.”

“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,” Nielsen said.

The briefing came on the heels of weeks of scorching criticism Republicans and Democrats have unleashed on the President following his refusal to back the US intelligence community’s conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 election over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials.

Trump has since reaffirmed his confidence in the US intelligence assessment, but his absence from the briefing room on Thursday and his ongoing branding of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt” have only kept alive questions about whether Trump is serious about confronting ongoing Russian interference.

That cognitive dissonance was on display during the briefing Thursday as Coats, national security adviser John Bolton and FBI Director Chris Wray were pressed about contradictions in the administration’s messaging and the President’s.

“I think the President has made it abundantly clear to everybody who has responsibility in this area that he cares deeply about it and that he expects them to do their jobs to their fullest ability and that he supports them fully,” Bolton said, adding that Trump opened his private meeting with Putin by raising election interference.

Still, Coats said he is “not in a position to either understand fully or talk about what happened in Helsinki,” despite being one of the US’s top intelligence officials.

Wray, meanwhile, fielded a question about Trump and his administration’s ongoing attacks on the Mueller investigation and on the FBI.

“I can assure the American people that the men and women of the FBI, starting from the director, all the way on down, are going to follow our oaths and do our jobs,” Wray said, standing feet away from White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who on Wednesday claimed “corruption and dishonesty” within the FBI.

Coats, Nielsen, Wray and Bolton were also joined by Gen. Paul Nakasone, the head of the National Security Agency and US Cyber Command, who said the US is prepared “to conduct operations” against cyber actors attempting to undermine US democracy.

But the overwhelming message from the officials was to demonstrate that the Trump administration is on guard as the 2018 midterms approach, particularly in the wake of Trump’s ambivalence and reports that US intelligence officials had yet to receive adequate guidance on priorities from the White House.

“The intelligence community continues to be concerned about the threats of upcoming US elections, both the midterms and the presidential elections of 2020,” Coats said. “Our focus here today is simply to tell the American people we acknowledge the threat, it is real, it is continuing and we are doing everything we can to have a legitimate election that the American people can have trust in.”

Coats said that while Russian efforts to influence and drive a wedge in US democracy are “pervasive” and “ongoing,” he said that US intelligence so far believes the Russian influence campaign is less robust than in 2016.

“It is not the kind of robust campaign that we assessed in the 2016 election,” Coats said. “They stepped up their game big time in 2016. We have not seen that kind of robust effort from them so far.”

But he added a word of caution: “We’re only one keyboard click away from finding out something we haven’t seen at this point in time, but right now we have not seen that.”

Coats also said Thursday that while Russia is continuing to interfere in the US, other countries also have “an interest in trying to influence our domestic political environment.”

“We know that there are others who have the capability,” Coats said. “We will continue to monitor and warn of any such efforts.”