Donald Trump’s national security adviser says he has not “seen any intelligence that Russia is doing anything to attempt” to get the president re-elected in November.
Robert O’Brien’s claim, to ABC’s This Week in an interview to be broadcast on Sunday, comes after it was reported that intelligence officials briefed the House intelligence committee that Russia was once again trying to help get Trump elected.
Reports of Trump’s furious reaction to that news were followed by the departure of Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, and his replacement by Trump loyalist Richard Grenell, formerly ambassador to Germany. The president has tweeted extensively on the subject, blaming Democrats and the media for “disinformation hoax number 7”.
It was also reported this week that Trump, congressional leaders and Bernie Sanders himself were briefed that Moscow was repeating another tactic from 2016 and backing the Vermont senator in the Democratic primary.
Sanders issued a statement telling Russia to stay out of US elections, then won convincingly in Nevada on Saturday.
O’Brien seized gleefully on reports about Russia and Sanders but rejected reports about Russia and Trump. Russian backing for Sanders, he said, would be “no surprise. He honeymooned in Moscow.”
Sanders has described a 10-day visit to the then Soviet capital in 1988 as “a very strange honeymoon”.
O’Brien continued: “President Trump has rebuilt the American military to an extent we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan. So I don’t think it’s any surprise that Russia or China or Iran would want somebody other than President Trump.”
Asked if he had seen analysis showing a Russian aim in its election interference efforts was to help the president, O’Brien said: “I have not seen that, and … the national security adviser gets pretty good access to our intelligence. I haven’t seen any intelligence that Russia is doing anything to attempt to get President Trump reelected. I think this is the same old story that we’ve heard before.”
O’Brien said he was not making a distinction between seeing actual intelligence material and seeing analysis of it.
“No, I haven’t seen any intelligence on that,” he said. “And I haven’t seen any analysis on that.”
He also said Grenell and CIA director Gina Haspel had not seen such material.
US intelligence concluded that Russia ran interference efforts through the 2016 election, aiming to boost support for Trump against Hillary Clinton, who confronted Russia while she was secretary of state, and to stoke division in US society.
Trump has rejected such conclusions, including standing with the Russian leader in Helsinki in July 2018 and saying: “I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
O’Brien, Trump’s fourth national security adviser, is a lawyer and former hostage negotiator who according to a New York Times report runs National Security Council meetings that include printouts of presidential tweets.
He attacked reports about the House intelligence committee briefing, which like the president he said were based on leaks.
“I’ve seen the reports from that briefing at the intel committee,” he said. “…I’ve also heard that from the briefers that that’s not what they intended the story to be.
“So, look, who knows what happened over at the House and the intelligence committee, but I haven’t seen any evidence that Russia is doing anything to attempt to get President Trump reelected. And our message to the Russians is stay out of the US elections. We’ve been very tough on Russia and we’ve been great on election security.”
Republicans in the Senate this month blocked three bills meant to strengthen US election security, shortly after being told by intelligence agencies the US was not doing enough to guard against a repeat of 2016. O’Brien said the White House was “working very hard with the states”.
“We’re going to paper ballots in many cases to harden our election infrastructure,” he said, “to make sure that not only is there not election influence through trolls and Twitter and that sort of thing, but to make sure that countries can’t hack into our secretaries of state in our 50 states and change election results or cause mischief on election day.”
Reports of Trump’s fury at Maguire over reports of the House intelligence briefing were incorrect, O’Brien added, saying the acting director would have been leaving anyway as his time in the role expired.
“We needed a Senate-confirmed official to come in and replace him,” O’Brien said. “And so we went with a highly qualified person, Ambassador Grenell.”
Most observers think Grenell is not qualified for the intelligence role and would not be confirmed by the Senate. Filling the role in an acting capacity – as many close aides to Trump do – lets him avoid that hurdle.
“We expect to nominate a terrific candidate for full-time director of the DNI,” O’Brien said. “And I think the president’s going to urge and I’m going to urge the Senate to move quickly … so we can get someone in there through the election and take this out of politics.”