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White House warns of broad Russian election intrusion efforts

Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing before the

Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 19, 2013. Credit: Getty Images/Alex Wong

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration, warning of “deep and broad” Russian efforts to “weaken and divide the United States,” outlined plans Thursday to combat foreign election intrusions ahead of the upcoming midterm elections.

“The threat is not going away," FBI Director Christopher Wray said at Thursday’s White House news briefing. "Russia attempted to interfere in the last election and continues to do so to this day. This is a threat we need to take extremely seriously and respond to with fierce determination and focus."

Wray, National Security Adviser John Bolton, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone made a rare joint appearance at the White House briefing room to address election security. The show of force from the nation’s top national security officials came as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continued to raise concerns about whether President Donald Trump has a coordinated national strategy to confront foreign-led election security threats.

The bipartisan concerns have grown louder in the past week amid reports that Russian hackers unsuccessfully attempted to break into the Senate computer network of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri). Officials with Microsoft also recently disclosed that Russians attempted to hack into the networks of three congressional campaigns ahead of the midterm elections, and on Tuesday Facebook announced it had shut down 32 fake accounts that had been set up to sow discord among voters.

Trump administration officials, without offering major details of their initiatives, said their respective agencies were working together and with state and local election officials to ensure the integrity of the upcoming elections. Nielsen said all 50 states and the District of Columbia had partnered with the Department of Homeland Security “to bolster elections infrastructure.”

“We are doing everything we can to have a legitimate election that everyone can have trust in,” Coats said, adding that intelligence officials “continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States.”

After Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shared the stage at a joint news conference in Helsinki last month, Trump came under criticism from leaders in his own party for not forcefully denouncing Russia’s attempts to meddle in the 2016 election.

Asked about the criticisms, Bolton said Trump raised the election issue with Putin behind closed doors during their one-on-one meeting in Finland. He added that defending the nation’s election systems was “deeply important” to the president, who last week convened a National Security Council meeting on the issue.

“President Trump has not and will not tolerate interference in America's system of representative government," Bolton wrote in a letter Thursday to five Democratic senators, including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who had written to Trump last week calling for a more “interagency coordination” on election security.

The five Democrats, in a joint statement, said Bolton’s letter failed to address their requests for Trump to “fully implement” sanctions on Russia previously approved by Congress, and for the administration to extradite 12 Russian government officials indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller last month on charges that they hacked into the e-mail systems of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign aides.

“We implore the administration to take this very real and imminent threat to our elections and our democracy more seriously,” wrote Schumer, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Sen. Chris Van Holland of Maryland.

The focus on combating further Russian election intrusions also came amid reports that Mueller, who is investigating purported ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, is negotiating the terms of an interview with Trump with the president’s legal team.

Mueller, according to the Associated Press and other media outlets, has told Trump’s legal team he would be willing to accept some answers in writing, and would consider limiting some of the questions presented to Trump. The president has publicly said he is willing to testify before Muller, but his lawyers have repeatedly and publicly advised him against it.

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