In a campaign stop Tuesday, Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson sought to deflect criticism he had either fabricated claims Russian operatives had penetrated the Sunshine State’s election machinery or leaked classified information.
Speaking to supporters in Lake City west of Jacksonville, Mr. Nelson said his remarks last week about Russian interference simply repeated concerns he and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio had sent last month to Ken Detzner, Florida’s secretary of state.
But Mr. Nelson’s attempt to lay the matter to rest failed to satisfy his opponent this November, GOP Gov. Rick Scott, who said the senator was trying to weasel out of a situation that still has Floridians puzzled and perhaps unduly alarmed.
In their July 2 letter, Florida’s senators asked Mr. Detzner to be vigilant in protecting the state’s election apparatus from possibly cyberattacks by foreign actors, particularly Russian. Their cautionary correspondence was prompted by a summary from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that in the 2016 elections “Russia was preparing to undermine confidence process and that, in a small number of cases, cyber actors affiliated with the Russian government accessed voter registration databases.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Nelson said that Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who chairs the senate intelligence committee, “came to me and Marco Rubio and said, ‘we have a problem in Florida.’ That the Russians are in the records. We think the two of you should warn the election apparatus of Florida.”
Since Mr. Nelson’s bombshell broke last week, Mr. Burr and Mr. Rubio have echoed the idea state election officials must be on their guard against outside meddling, but neither senator has backed the specific idea Russian agents had already mucked about in Florida’s apparatus this year.
A similar disconnect appeared to exist between Mr. Nelson’s remarks to The Tampa Bay Times and his Tuesday talk. While Mr. Nelson told his Lake City audience what he said Tuesday was “exactly what the letter states,” the record appears to contradict that claim.
Instead, both the latter and the July 2 letter represented a sort of electoral BOLO, and neither of them correlated with or provided support for the accusation he leveled last week. Then, in an interview with The Tampa Bay Times, Mr. Nelson said Russians “had already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about.”
Mr. Scott and other state officials stressed the specificity of Mr. Nelson’s allegations last week, and reiterated that Florida was unaware of any such penetration. For days, Mr. Scott’s campaign has demanded Mr. Nelson either offer proof or explain how he wasn’t revealing classified information.
Mr. Detzner took the additional step of writing the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI last Friday, asking for such information and assistance from federal officials by Monday.
Sarah Revell, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State, said her agency, which oversees elections “has received zero information from Senator Nelson or his staff that support his claims.”
She added that “the Department has received no information from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that corroborates Senator Nelson’s statement and we have no evidence to support these claims. If Senator Nelson has specific information about threats to our elections, he should share it with election officials in Florida.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Nelson carefully avoided leveling such a pointed charge, although at one point he allowed, “this senator doesn’t know what counties they’re in,” in reference to the Russians.
“That is very closely held by the intelligence community,” he added, “because they don’t want to tip off the Russians that we know. Otherwise, they will figure out how they got that information.”
Mr. Nelson went on Tuesday to argue it was “foolish to think if they were in the election records in 2016 that they are not continuing,” which is a more general proposition than he was quoted as giving earlier.
“At this point, people in Florida are just more confused,” said Lauren Schenone, spokeswoman for the Scott campaign. “This is so important to the public but we’re just not getting questions answered.”
Republican officials said Wednesday Mr. Nelson’s words were disingenuous, arguing the senator can’t claim he is protecting the intelligence community when he apparently tipped off the Russians himself last week.
“He’s either lying or circling back to try to cover up that he leaked classified information,” said Taryn Fenske, the Florida communications director for the Republican National Committee.
Tuesday’s video of a seemingly relaxed Mr. Nelson speaking to an unshown audience was taken by phone by someone standing very near the senator, and posted on YouTube by the “GOP War Room.” In it, Mr. Nelson said he was asked about the topic in Tallahassee by “the capital press corps,” and that in reply he simply echoed what he and Mr. Rubio wrote in July.
At the end, Mr. Nelson assures his listeners, “I don’t think Suwannee County is involved, I doubt it,” but goes on to speculate the Russians will target more hotly contested areas.
“What they’re going to do is they’re going to try to find, I assume, is a swing county that they can go in, since they penetrated in, and then just go and alter some records,” he said. “Eliminate some of the voters from the file, or something more simple. …”
The tape ends when Mr. Nelson notices he is being recorded and he points at the camera, asking, “Are you with the press?” The recorder says he is not and shuts down.
• James Varney can be reached at email@example.com.
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