Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) on Thursday night professed confusion over a White House announcement that openly blamed Russia for orchestrating a series of hacks that stole reams of emails from the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic Party networks.
At the same time, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee’s vice chairwoman, issued one of the strongest statements to date from a member of Congress accusing the Russian government of interfering with the election. She said Thursday evening that the cyberattacks occurred “with the goal of electing [Republican presidential nominee] Donald Trump.”
Feinstein’s statement on Russia’s role in the election is directly opposite to the view held by Burr, who is a recent addition to Trump’s national security advisory council. Burr is also in a tight re-election race in a historically purple state that has pivoted right in recent years.
During a North Carolina Senate debate Thursday evening, Burr laughed when ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl asked him about Feinstein’s statement that the Russian cyberattacks were carried out to assist the Trump campaign.
“The Department of Homeland Security has looked at every election system in the country, and there are no ballot boxes that are connected to the internet,” the senator said. “They’re confident that it can’t be intruded on in any way.”
Burr initially seemed unaware of the contents of a joint statement issued last Friday by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. That statement accused the Russian government of hacking the email accounts of U.S. persons and organizations — including political institutions — with the goal of influencing the U.S. election.
Though the statement does not specifically name the Democratic Party as the political institution in question, it does designate a series of Russian-linked websites which have posted hundreds of emails stolen from the DNC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and high-profile individuals associated with the Democratic Party.
When asked about Russia’s role in those hacks, Burr said he didn’t believe that the nation’s top intelligence officials had made such an assertion. “I’m not sure that the Director of National Intelligence has specifically addressed who’s to blame for those,” he said.
The Republican senator said he believed Clapper was instead referring to the “intrusions into the election boards of 22 states.”
In another portion of their joint statement, Clapper and Johnson said there was insufficient evidence to directly accuse the Russian government of ordering cyberattacks against state election targets. The officials urged local cybersecurity officials to remain vigilant.
Burr refused to say later in Thursday’s debate whether he agrees with the conclusion that the Russian government was behind the release of emails stolen from Democratic Party databases.
“I am not at a point where I can comment on that,” the senator told Karl. “I’m not sure that the reports that you read come from official sources. And given that, I can’t remember whether this administration has released anything about that, then I’m bound — and protected — under classified information.”
Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for Burr’s Senate campaign, told Morning Consult Friday that “without the verified statement in front of him to discuss the specifics, Sen. Burr chose to be particularly cautious with potentially sensitive information.”
Feinstein’s statement, on the other hand, lays out a string of evidence that she believes points to a concerted effort by the Russian government to support the Trump campaign.
“The hacking of political institutions, the recent hacking of [Hillary Clinton campaign manager] John Podesta’s email account and the release of other faked documents are clear efforts to discredit the Clinton campaign and represent yet another unacceptable step in what appears to be an attempt by the Russians to fix this election,” Feinstein said.
“Every elected official and candidate in the United States, including Trump, should vocally and forcefully reject these efforts,” the California senator added.
Other members of Congress haven’t gone as far as describing a specific motive for the Russian cyberattacks. Feinstein is one of the few lawmakers to directly accuse the Russians of working to build up the Trump campaign and undermine Clinton’s.
Feinstein’s statement is also an indication that she believes Russia’s plan to undermine the U.S. election extends beyond the Democratic Party hacks to include cyberattacks on state election systems and the publication of Podesta’s stolen emails by the website Wikileaks.
The senator said she is basing her assessment of the situation off of media reports and intelligence briefings.
Trump himself has expressed skepticism over Russia’s role in the Democratic Party cyberattacks. During the first presidential debate held earlier this month, he said the guilty party could just as easily be “somebody that sits on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
“You don’t know who broke into DNC,” Trump said.
In her statement, Feinstein said that only Russian President Vladimir Putin can call off what appears to be an ongoing cyber campaign against U.S. election targets.
“Americans should not and will not stand for these illegal and illegitimate attempts by the heirs of the KGB to corrupt our election system,” she wrote, urging the White House to take “forceful action” if the Kremlin refuses to halt its hacking activities.
Other Democrats have called on the Obama administration to retaliate against the Russian government.
–Amir Nasr contributed