The woman who oversaw the Obama White House’s response to the Russian election attack said she was never briefed on the FBI’s use of an informant to investigate the Trump campaign and that it was “ridiculous” for President Trump to claim that the matter amounted to “one of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history.”
Avril Haines, who served as deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, made the comments during an exclusive interview with the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery.” In her first first full-length interview since leaving government, Haines also said she had been “very concerned” in 2016 about the degree to which Russians might have gained “influence” within the Trump campaign — concerns that were fueled by Trump’s public comments about Putin that she found “wildly disconnected from reality.”
“No, absolutely not,” Haines said when asked if she was ever told about the confidential FBI informant who made contact with three members of the Trump campaign. “We didn’t even know at the time there was an [FBI] investigation as such,” she said. Haines said the FBI briefed the National Security Council “on a regular basis” about what she termed “counterintelligence issues” but that it had not told the council that any formal probe of the Trump campaign had been initiated.
Over the past week, Trump and his allies have repeatedly claimed that the “Obama administration” had planted a “spy” inside the Trump campaign for political purposes, prompting them to demand that the Justice Department and FBI turn over documents about a confidential informant – a former University of Cambridge professor — who had contacted three campaign advisers. Law enforcement officials have countered that using such informants amid counterintelligence investigations — which the FBI had launched in late July 2016 into Russian efforts to penetrate the Trump campaign — is standard procedure.
Asked about one of Trump’s tweets referring to the use of the informant as “Spygate” and claiming that it may be “one of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history,” Haines said: “Surely, you realize that I think that’s ridiculous. … It’s very unfortunate that the current president of the United States goes after the institutions that he is responsible for in a way that is not at least apparently the product of deliberation and thoughtfulness.”
Haines, who had previously served as deputy CIA director under John Brennan, was charged by the White House in the summer of 2016 with overseeing the U.S. response to the Russian election attack. The response was a highly secretive process that she said was further complicated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to go along with a bipartisan warning about the Russian efforts. In a highly controversial decision, the White House chose not to respond to those efforts until after the election, fearing that it might disrupt the voting. Instead, Obama warned Putin privately during a summit in China — a move that officials thought was productive because the White House detected no further Russian attempts to tamper with state election databases, which was their chief worry at the time.
Still, Haines acknowledged that there were aspects of the Russian attack — especially the exploitation of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter — the White House and the U.S. intelligence community did not fully understand at the time and that continued after Obama’s warning. “The picture you have now we didn’t have then,” she said.
“Honestly, we could have done better from the policy perspective,” Haines said in assessing the impact of the Russian social media efforts.. “In thinking that through, I think we all have a piece of that to live with. I do think, though, even knowing that, I’m not sure our reactions would have been any different.”