WASHINGTON - Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that Russia engaged in "sweeping and systematic" interference in the 2016 U.S. election to help Donald Trump become president, but a new account says the issue is still too sensitive to discuss in front of Trump as it relates to what Moscow might do when he runs for re-election in 2020.
Former Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen tried to focus the attention of top U.S. officials on combating Russian influence in next year's election in the months before Trump forced her to resign in early April after protracted conflict over immigration policies, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
But the newspaper quoted an unnamed senior Trump administration official as saying that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney warned Nielsen against raising the issue in front of Trump, who has equated discussion of Russian meddling in the 2016 election with questions of whether his election victory was legitimate.
The Times quoted a senior administration official as saying Mulvaney told Nielsen that Russian meddling in the upcoming presidential election "wasn't a great subject and should be kept below his level."
Mulvaney disputed the account, saying, "I don't recall anything along those lines happening in any meeting."
He blamed Trump's predecessor, former president Barack Obama, for not forcefully confronting Russia about its ongoing election interference, although Obama and others raised the issue with Moscow in the lead-up to the 2016 election.
"Unlike the Obama administration, who knew about Russian actions in 2014 and did nothing, the Trump administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections, and we’ve already taken many steps to prevent it in the future," Mulvaney said.
"In fact, for the first time in history, state, local and federal governments have coordinated in all 50 states to share intelligence. We’ve broadened our efforts to combat meddling by engaging the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the FBI, among others, and we have even conducted security breach training drills to ensure preparedness,” Mulvaney said.
Mueller concluded that Russian meddling in the 2016 election was widespread, including fake postings on U.S. social media accounts aimed at helping Trump defeat his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, and hacking and disclosing emails written by Democratic officials that reflected poorly on Clinton.
But the prosecutor also concluded that while there were numerous contacts between Trump campaign aides and Russians, neither Trump nor his campaign conspired with Russia. In Trump's frequent refrain, there was "no collusion."
Jared Kushner, a White House adviser and Trump's son-in-law, said Tuesday that Mueller's 22-month investigation was "more harmful" to the U.S. than Russia's 2016 election interference.
“You look at what Russia did, buying some Facebook ads and trying to sow dissent. It's a terrible thing,” Kushner said. “But I think the investigations and all of the speculation that's happened for the last two years has a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple Facebook ads.”
“I think they said they spent $160,000," Kushner said. "I spent $160,000 on Facebook every three hours during the campaign. If you look at the magnitude of what they did, the ensuing investigations have been way more harmful.”