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National Security Officials Reaffirm Russia's Work To Undermine U.S. Elections


President Trump is facing criticism for failing to treat the threat of foreign attacks on the U.S. political system seriously enough. Today, his top national security officials made a dramatic surprise appearance in the White House briefing room to show the public how seriously they are taking the threat, particularly from Russia. Here's Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.


DAN COATS: The president has specifically directed us to make the matter of election meddling and securing our election process a top priority, and we have done that and are doing that and will continue to do so.

CORNISH: NPR's Sarah McCammon was at that briefing. She joins us now from the White House. And, Sarah, what did these Trump administration officials have to say? Did we actually learn anything new about what they're doing?

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: So a lot of it we have heard before - for example, that these attacks include both efforts to undermine our election infrastructure and security through things like hacking and efforts to influence public opinion by manipulating news coverage through - and through social media. Here's FBI Director Christopher Wray, who was at the briefing. He said there are threats to the 2018 election and beyond.


CHRISTOPHER WRAY: But it's important to understand this is not just an election cycle threat. Our adversaries are trying to undermine our country on a persistent and regular basis whether it's election season or not.

MCCAMMON: And so Wray reiterated that the federal government is investigating these attacks, working with state and local election officials to enhance security and using sanctions to discourage attacks - so not really new. But, Audie, that's not really the point because Trump has been facing a lot of criticism in recent weeks for making confusing and contradictory statements about whether or not Russia interfered in 2016. So this appears to be mostly a show of force to prove that the administration is taking this seriously.

CORNISH: We've been hearing from lawmakers on this show this week who are worried about tampering with the midterm elections coming up. Did that have anything to do with the announcement today?

MCCAMMON: Well, the briefing did come on the heels of these reports that specific officials have been targeted, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire among them who said hackers targeted her and others in Congress. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, another Democrat - she's facing a tough re-election battle and says she was hacked by Russians. Also of course Facebook said this week it's identified and removed more than 30 fake pages and accounts designed to stir up controversy around some big, divisive issues.

CORNISH: What about the members of Congress who are tasked with investigating these kinds of threats? What are we hearing from them?

MCCAMMON: Well, we heard from Republican Senator Richard Burr this week who sounded the alarm, referring to that famous meme of someone calmly drinking coffee in a burning room and saying this is fine. Burr said things are not fine; Russia poses a real threat. Several senators sent a letter to national security adviser John Bolton this week expressing their concerns. So there is a growing sense of concern about this especially as we get closer to the November midterm elections.

CORNISH: Trump administration officials are pressing this issue. But as we heard from the president himself, as you said, he's sent mixed messages on Russia. What's the White House saying about that?

MCCAMMON: Well, officials were asked about that in the briefing today - this apparent disconnect between the president and his top national security officials. John Bolton said the president has made it, quote, "abundantly clear" that he cares deeply about this and wants his staff to do their jobs and investigate. That's what these officials are telling the public that they're doing. But the president did face a lot of fallout from that appearance with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently in Helsinki, Finland, where he failed to call out Putin and a series of statements that the White House had to clarify or walk back about Russia.

Since then, the president has affirmed that Russia is interfering but claimed that they're actually trying to help Democrats - that of course after Putin himself said he wanted Trump to win in 2016. The director of national intelligence, Coats, was asked about that today and didn't provide any evidence that Russia's helping either party, but he said it's certainly clear that Russia is trying to influence our elections.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon at the White House.

MCCAMMON: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.