Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Tuesday "there should be no doubt" that Russia sees the 2018 US elections as a target.
Coats and the other top national security officials told the Senate Intelligence Committee that they still view Moscow as a threat to the 2018 elections, a stance that appears at odds with President Donald Trump's repeated dismissals of Russian election meddling.
"We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen and other means to influence, to try to build on its wide range of operations and exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States," Coats said at a hearing on worldwide threats. "There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations."
Tuesday's hearing touched on a wide array of threats, from North Korea to China to weapons of mass destruction. But Russia's interference into US and other elections loomed large amid the committee's investigation into Russian election meddling and the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russian officials.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the committee's top Democrat, warned that the US was not prepared to handle the Russian threat to US elections heading into the midterms.
"We've had more than a year to get our act together and address the threat posed by Russia and implement a strategy to deter future attacks. But we still do not have a plan," Warner said.
Warner questioned Coats and the other officials testifying — CIA Director Mike Pompeo, FBI Director Chris Wray, NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo — about how the government was addressing the threat to both the US election systems and through social media. He asked all six of the US officials testifying to reaffirm the intelligence community's findings last year that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and that the Kremlin will continue to intervene in future elections. All said yes.
Democrats pointed to that unanimous assessment to criticize Trump for maintaining a contrasting view to his own intelligence community.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, urged the intelligence chiefs to persuade the President to accept their findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
"My problem is, I talk to people in Maine who say the whole thing is a witch hunt and a hoax 'because the President told me,'" King said. "There's no doubt, as you all have testified today, we cannot confront this threat, which is a serious one, with a whole of government response when the leader of the government continues to that deny it exists."
That denial of course is part and parcel of the problem with Trump. He can't publicly admit that Russia interfered with the election, because the facade he's hiding behind ends the moment he does.
Trump has been skeptical about the intelligence assessment that Russia meddled ever since he was first briefed on the issue during the presidential transition. But that skepticism has endured even after Trump hand-selected his own intel chiefs and they reiterated the conclusions of their predecessors.
Trump has only begrudgingly acknowledged that Russia may have interfered in the election. In a press conference as president-elect, Trump said, "As far as hacking, I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people." At a June 2017 press conference in Poland, he again said Russia meddled in the election, but added that "other people and other countries" likely did as well.
More often, Trump has cast doubt on accusations of Russian meddling. He has questioned whether the Russians were responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee, and he has called the entire "Russia story" a hoax perpetuated by angry Democrats. He even convinced Pompeo to personally meet with a conspiracy theorist who denies that Russia hacked the DNC.
Trump caused a stir during his trip to Asia when he suggested that he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin's denials that his government meddled in the election. Trump and Putin met several times on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Vietnam. "Every time he sees me, he says, 'I didn't do that,'" Trump said. "And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it."
But members of Trump's cabinet have bucked Trump and sided with the intelligence community including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who said in October: "When a country can come interfere in another country's elections, that is warfare."
Tuesday's hearing was the latest opportunity for Democrats to pounce on the conflicting messages coming from the intelligence chiefs and their commander in chief. Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, urged the intelligence officials to convince Trump that the issue of collusion was separate from election meddling.
Trump's ego won't allow the admission, because it would be an admission of guilt. Legally and politically it would be his near-immediate end, and any other person on earth would have resigned long ago.
But Donald Trump is a unique brand of evil bastard. And so we pretend that the orange schlub somehow didn't benefit from Russian interference (and from James Comey's timely October 2016 surprise) and America continues to normalize the fact we're under a lawless regime led by a racist, misogynist abusive idiot.