WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s top aides said on Thursday that Russia is behind “pervasive” attempts to interfere in upcoming U.S. elections, in a rejection of denials of meddling that Russian President Vladimir Putin made directly to Trump.
Trump’s national security team, including intelligence director Dan Coats and national security adviser John Bolton, appeared in the White House briefing room to stress that a major effort is under way to protect the integrity of congressional elections in November and the 2020 presidential election.
“We acknowledge the threat, it is real, it is continuing, and we’re doing everything we can to have a legitimate election,” Coats said, adding: “It is pervasive, it is ongoing, with the intent to … drive a wedge and undermine our democratic values.”
Trump has voiced skepticism about Russia’s role in U.S. election meddling, drawing accusations from Democrats and Republicans alike that he is ignoring a threat to American democracy.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said after talks with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16.
But Coats, Bolton, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and the director of the National Security Agency, Paul Nakasone, said Russia is to blame along with other foreign actors.
Coats said the Russian meddling effort reached into the Kremlin itself. He gave no details.
“Russia has used numerous ways in which they want to influence, through media, social media, through bots, through actors that they hire, through proxies – all of the above, and potentially more,” he said.
Democrats skeptical of the Trump-led effort to protect the elections said they were glad there was a focus on it now. Trump had held a National Security Council meeting on the subject last Friday and Bolton sent a letter to Senate Democratic leaders to describe the effort.
“Glad to see the White House finally do something about election security – even if it’s only a press conference. Now if only it was actually backed up by anything the President has said or done on Russia,” U.S. Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said in a tweet.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Bolton’s letter did not address Democrats’ concerns that the Trump administration was not fully implementing U.S. sanctions on Russia levied in response to the 2016 meddling.
“We implore the administration to take this very real and imminent threat to our elections and our democracy more seriously,” said a joint statement from Schumer and other Democratic leaders.
In an effort to thwart interference in U.S. elections, Democratic U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said he hopes to win support for his bill that would require the use of paper ballots for voting.
“The bottom line for election security is to make sure that we have paper ballots and that we have audits after the election to pick up on whether there were any risks” to election results, Wyden told reporters.
Three Senate panels in coming weeks are expected to weigh bills that would tighten the security of U.S. voting stations, which are administered by the states, as well as measures to punish Russia if it is found meddling again in U.S. elections.
U.S. officials say the illegal activity includes criminal efforts to suppress voting and provide illegal campaign financing, cyber attacks against voting infrastructure, along with computer intrusions targeting elected officials and others.
A senior U.S. official said the Russian meddling campaign has accelerated and grown more sophisticated since the 2016 election and is not directed at boosting one political party over another.
“This is about exploiting the fault lines that exist in our society and building on what was done in 2016, and it isn’t confined to the internet – it includes print and television, as well, in some cases using existing platforms that predate the 2016 election,” the official said.
Wray said the FBI has opened investigations into election interference.
“We also know the Russians tried to hack into and steal information from candidates and government officials alike,” Coats said.
He said Russia was not the only country working to undermine American elections.
A federal special counsel is leading a criminal investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and any possible cooperation with Trump’s presidential campaign. Trump has insisted there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia.
Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, John Walcott, Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by James Dalgleish