CIA Director Mike Pompeo drew sharp criticism Thursday after wrongly stating that the U.S. intelligence community had found that Russian meddling did not tilt the 2016 presidential election.
Pompeo made the inaccurate claim at an event hosted by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank close to the Trump administration. His comments come amid growing evidence of Russian interference in last year’s campaign, the scale of which remains unclear.
“The intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election,” Pompeo said.
The intelligence community has made no such assessment. A report by the CIA and the National Security Agency released in January found that the Kremlin hacked emails and disseminated propaganda in order “to help [then-candidate Donald Trump’s] election chances.”
But the report’s authors explained that they “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.”
“I warned in January that Director Pompeo’s views on Russia shifted with those of the president,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote on Twitter. “Today is more evidence of that sad fact.”
President Donald Trump, who has doubted whether Russia interfered in the election at all, has repeatedly made the blanket assertion that any Kremlin meddling had no ultimate impact. “The Russians did not affect the vote,” Trump told NBC in May.
“Not true,” former CIA Deputy Director David Cohen tweeted after Pompeo’s remark Thursday. “The Intelligence Community Assessment specifically said the IC made no judgment on whether Russian interference affected election.”
And Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) posted on Twitter that Pompeo was either “parroting POTUS talking points” or “making major split from rest of the IC on Russia meddling.”
A CIA official insisted that neither was true.
“The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed, and the director did not intend to suggest that it had,” CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani told POLITICO.
Pompeo could have meant only that Russia did not manipulate the final vote count. The January intelligence report, citing the Department of Homeland Security, said that while Russia hacked into several state and local election databases, those systems were “not involved in vote tallying.”
But many Democrats, including Trump’s defeated 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, strongly reject the wider claim that a scheme by Russian President Vladimir Putin could not have influenced voter attitudes enough to swing the election.
“Because no evidence has emerged yet of direct vote tampering, some critics insist that Russian interference had no impact on the outcome at all. This is absurd,” Clinton wrote in her recent memoir about the election, “What Happened.”
“The Kremlin’s information warfare was roughly equivalent to a hostile Super PAC unleashing a major ad campaign if not worse. Of course it had an impact,” she added.
Emails from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party that were hacked and made public by Russian operatives dominated media coverage for months. And growing evidence of sophisticated Russian propaganda on Twitter and Facebook is fueling Democratic beliefs that the Kremlin might have tipped narrowly decided states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in Trump’s favor.
Last month, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told CNN the intelligence community assessed that Russian interference “cast doubt on the legitimacy of [Trump’s] victory in the election.” Pompeo made his Thursday statement in response to a question about Clapper’s comment.
The January intelligence report did not even try to reach a formal conclusion about the impact of Russian interference, noting that the US intelligence community “does not analyze U.S. political processes or U.S. public opinion.”
Pompeo has been criticized before for what he has said about Russia’s role in the election. During a July appearance at the Aspen Security Forum, he seemed to downplay the Kremlin’s 2016 election interference, calling it nothing new.
“It is true” that Russia intervened in the last election, Pompeo said. “And the one before that, and the one before that. They have been at this a hell of a long time.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said, “This is not the first time the director has made statements minimizing the significance of what the Russians did, but it needs to be the last.”
During his January confirmation hearing, held shortly after the intelligence community report, Pompeo stressed the importance of the official findings.
“It’s pretty clear what took place here,” Pompeo told the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I’m very clear-eyed about what that intelligence report says.”
“My obligation as director of the CIA,” he added, “is to tell every policymaker the facts as best the intelligence agency has developed them.”