A group of senior U.S. intelligence and national security officials warned Thursday that Russia is waging a “pervasive campaign” to undermine upcoming U.S. elections and influence voters, and said the Trump administration is taking several steps to prevent such meddling.
Their comments came during a White House briefing about foreign election interference that recapped a meeting last week between President Donald Trump and his National Security Council.
VIDEO BELOW: US officials raise alarm about election security
“The intelligence community continues to be concerned, both about the midterms and the 2020 presidential elections. We continue to see a pervasive campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told reporters Thursday.
“We also know the Russians have tried to hack into and steal information from candidates and government officials alike,” he said, suggesting there may be “others who have the capability and may be considering malicious activities” to interfere with U.S. elections.
The briefing comes just weeks after Trump drew the ire of lawmakers from both parties and former intelligence officials for questioning Russia’s involvement in a series of cyber attacks that took place during the 2016 election. Those controversial comments were made at a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized the administration’s response to the potential for further attacks as fragmented, without enough coordination across federal agencies. And with the midterms only three months away, critics are calling on Trump to take a stronger stand on an issue critical to American democracy.
However, Coats and Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton both said Thursday that the president has taken a strong leadership role in urging the intelligence community to identify and prevent attempts to sow discord in the United States.
“The president has specifically directed us to make the matter of election meddling … a top priority and we are doing that,” Coats said.
In a statement shared by the White House following the briefing, Trump said his administration has and will continue to “take strong action to secure our election systems and the process.”
According to FBI Director Chris Wray, recent foreign attempts to meddle in U.S. elections have most often involved the use of “traditional intelligence trade craft” and computer intrusions. The FBI director joined others in declining to provide details on what is specifically being done to prevent additional threats due to the sensitive and classified nature of such actions.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders refused to say if the Russians have aimed to benefit either political party in their most recent attempts to meddle in the midterm elections. However, Sanders said some anti-Trump information shared by Russian bots on Facebook “certainly isn’t helping Republicans.”
The officials said their foremost concern at the moment is protecting the November midterm elections and deterring other potential hostile actors from committing cyber crimes against U.S. election infrastructure.
“We know there are others and we know that there are others that are considering making attempts in 2018, which is what our focus is moving forward,” Sanders said, adding that current intelligence shows other countries are actively “considering engaging” in the midterms.
At the state and local level, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said her department is working with leaders to strengthen election infrastructure and provide technical advice to those dealing with computer intrusions, malware, and other devices.
“The federal role is to assist on state and local governments,” Bolton told reporters, adding that congressional lawmakers are regularly briefed on such efforts.
The Trump administration faced severe criticism earlier this year for failing to take decisive action to prevent future attempts to interfere in U.S. elections after National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers told Congress he had not received guidance from the White House to determine how to counter Moscow.
“President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay and that therefore, ‘I can continue this activity,'” Rogers told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, adding at the time that “what [the U.S. has done] hasn’t been enough.”
But U.S. Cyber Command Chief Paul Nakasone said Thursday he and others have received explicit instructions from the president to combat the threat of election meddling.
“My guidance and the direction from the president and Secretary of Defense is very clear: We’re not going to accept meddling in elections. It’s very unambiguous,” Nakasone told reporters.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee who has criticized Trump for not taking a stronger leadership role on election security, said he was heartened by the White House news conference.
“Glad to see the White House finally do something about election security — even if it’s only a press conference,” Warner tweeted. “Now, if only it was actually backed up by anything the president has said or done on Russia.”
The Senate is working on a bipartisan package backed by GOP leaders that would boost federal assistance to state and local election officials with cybersecurity guidelines, data sharing and security clearances. It’s expected in September.
GOP lawmakers are wary of being seen as imposing any new regulations on states that have resisted federal control.
The Associated Press contributed.