By Nafeesa Syeed and Anna Edgerton
The Trump administration sought to assure lawmakers on Tuesday that it’s working with states to ensure the security of U.S. elections after Democrats raised concerns that the government isn’t doing enough.
“This is an issue that the Administration takes seriously and is addressing with urgency,” according to a joint statement Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and FBI Director Christopher Wray released after top intelligence officials briefed House members behind closed doors. The officials said they highlighted efforts to protect “critical infrastructure” for elections.
Democrats have questioned whether the Trump administration has acted forcefully enough to prevent other countries from meddling with U.S. election results after intelligence agencies concluded that Russia sought to help President Donald Trump and hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential contest. Russia denies the accusations.
Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat, said after the meeting that “I don’t feel confident” that the Homeland Security Department and other agencies are doing enough to secure future elections. Much of the briefing focused on Russia, but there are “others out there” seeking to do the same thing, he said.
“I didn’t walk away thinking that we’re there yet” in terms of being prepared, he said.
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The briefing comes as primary elections are underway Tuesday in Arkansas, Georgia Kentucky and Texas.
James Langevin, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said after the briefing that “states have had better interaction with the federal government than they did prior to the 2016 election but there are still weaknesses in the system,” especially making sure there’s a paper trail. He said about 50 lawmakers attended the meeting and some raised questions about specific information the government has about efforts by Russia to interfere with elections.
Nielsen said after Tuesday’s meeting that Russians have sought to “manipulate public confidence on both sides” and that “we see them continuing to conduct influence campaigns.”
Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said Russia’s goal is to “create chaos” and not help a specific candidate.
House Speaker Paul Ryan organized the classified meeting. Trump held his own briefing May 3 with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Wray and others to discuss efforts to bolster the country’s election systems and how to work with states.
DHS is offering states voluntary cyber services, including remote checks of their election systems and on-site vulnerability assessments. It’s also granting security clearances to election officials, though they haven’t all been finalized.
States are now deciding how to use their share of $380 million in federal election security grants that came with the omnibus spending package earlier this year. But it’s hardly enough to update aging voting equipment in most states ahead of the November polls, and many state officials are hoping Congress will approve more dollars.
Also this month, the Senate Intelligence panel issued its first interim report on election security. While confessing its members lacked a firm grasp on the extent of hacking into voter systems in 2016, the committee said the U.S. should “clearly communicate to adversaries that an attack on our election infrastructure is a hostile act, and we will respond accordingly.”
A group of former U.S. and European officials, including ex-Vice President Joe Biden, who say governments haven’t sufficiently addressed election security threats have started the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, which plans its first meeting in Copenhagen on June 21-22. The group aims to conduct studies on how to better reduce risks to elections from Russian cyber threats, including looking at new technologies, and share their findings with governments.
Every House seat is on the ballot in November general elections, along with a third of Senate seats.