As the new head of the US Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen took an oath last December to protect the US from all enemies, foreign and domestic. To do that, she runs a 200,000 employee agency tasked with fighting terrorism, handling immigration, and keeping elections secure.
But her responsibilities apparently do not include staying up to date on key findings about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Nielsen told reporters today that she has never read the publicly available 25-page report on election meddling written by the FBI, CIA, and NSA, and distributed by the Director of National Intelligence last January.
The report was the first piece of public intelligence issued by the US government on Russian meddling. It specifically states that Russian president Vladimir Putin was behind a campaign to “denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” and that he had “a clear preference for President-elect Trump” in the 2016 election.
“I do not believe that I’ve seen that conclusion that the specific intent was to help President Trump win,” Nielsen said today. “I’m not aware of that.”
Nielsen’s admission shocked intelligence experts and some in Congress. “I can’t imagine anyone that is going to be engaged in national security, and particularly election security, would not have read that assessment,” Mark Warner, the Democratic senator from Virginia who is on the intelligence committee, said afterward.
Trump’s own nominees for head of the CIA and Director of National Intelligence, Mike Pompeo and Dan Coates, testified last October they’d not only read the report, but agreed with its findings. Richard Burr, the Republican Senator who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the committee came to the same conclusion last week, after months of investigation.
The US president, however, continues to claim that Russian interference had nothing to do with his 2016 win.
Nielsen has been criticized by Trump in recent weeks for failing to secure the billions of dollars in funding for his border wall with Mexico, and the White House has discussed replacing her. Saying that she hadn’t read any such intelligence may give Nielsen political cover—but it suggests she isn’t doing her job of protecting the US elections from foreign interference.
Bennie G. Thompson, a Democrat on the House committee on Homeland Security, is expected to deliver a copy of the report to Nielsen in person later today, to make sure she reads it.