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US intelligence briefer appears to have overstated assessment of 2020 Russian interference

Washington(CNN) The US intelligence community's top election security official appears to have overstated the intelligence community's formal assessment of Russian interference in the 2020 election, omitting important nuance during a briefing with lawmakers earlier this month, three national security officials told CNN.

The official, Shelby Pierson, told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee that Russia is interfering in the 2020 election with the goal of helping President Donald Trump get reelected.

The US intelligence community has assessed that Russia is interfering in the 2020 election and has separately assessed that Russia views Trump as a leader they can work with. But the US does not have evidence that Russia's interference this cycle is aimed at reelecting Trump, the officials said.

"The intelligence doesn't say that," one senior national security official told CNN. "A more reasonable interpretation of the intelligence is not that they have a preference, it's a step short of that. It's more that they understand the President is someone they can work with, he's a dealmaker."

Pierson's characterization of Russian interference led to pointed questions from lawmakers, which officials said caused Pierson to overstep and assert that Russia has a preference for Trump to be reelected.

One intelligence official said that Pierson's characterization of the intelligence was "misleading" and a national security official said Pierson failed to provide the "nuance" needed to accurately convey the US intelligence conclusions.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, where Pierson is a senior official, did not respond to CNN's request for comment.

Trump has been periodically briefed on Russian interference in the 2020 election, but was upset when he learned of Pierson's characterization of the intelligence in part because intelligence officials had not characterized the interference as explicitly pro-Trump. One national security official said Russia's only clear aim, as of now, is to sow discord in the United States.

Russia interfered in the 2016 election with the aim of helping Trump get elected and damaging then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign, the intelligence community concluded, writing in its post-election assessment that "Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump." And while it is not inconceivable that Russia is once again looking to boost Trump's candidacy, three national security officials said the US intelligence community does not yet have the evidence to make that assessment.

Since becoming President, Trump has consistently questioned that intelligence assessment, including during a news conference alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin. And many of Trump's foreign policies have benefited Russia, from his abrupt pullout of US troops from northern Syria to the discord he has sown with America's closest European allies. And he has previously expressed a reluctance to impose severe sanctions on Russia.

Those facts, the US assessment that Russia views Trump as someone they can work with and the separate assessment of Russian interference in the 2020 elections may have led Pierson to connect the dots.

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" that Russia would like to see Trump reelected "because he has been a gift to Russia."

"He has essentially ceded the Middle East to Russian interests. He has accomplished more in the undermining of NATO than Russia has in the last 20 years," Murphy said. "And he continues to effectively deny that they have an ongoing political operation here in the United States that, by and large, is intended to support Donald Trump and his allies."

One source familiar with the matter said Pierson was merely providing her view of the intelligence as she faced a series of questions from lawmakers trying to pin her down on whether the intelligence showed a Russian preference for Trump.

It's the type of situation intelligence briefers are prepped to avoid, the source said, in part so as not to wade into partisan controversy. The source said the answer she provided has been misconstrued because it lacked context and nuance.

The brouhaha over the intelligence briefing led national security adviser Robert O'Brien to flatly deny the existence of an intelligence assessment regarding Russian interference aimed at helping Trump. But O'Brien did not explain that the US has also assessed that the Kremlin views Trump as a leader they can work with.

"Well, there's no briefing that I've received, that the President has received, that says that President Putin is doing anything to try and influence the elections in favor of President Trump. We just haven't seen that intelligence. If it's out there, I haven't seen it. I'd be surprised if I haven't seen it. The leaders of our -- the IC have not seen it," O'Brien said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

But while O'Brien denied that assessment, he was quick to seize on reports that Russia is interfering in the election to help Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries -- and mischaracterized the reports to suggest Russia wants Sanders to be President.

"There are these reports that they want Bernie Sanders to get elected president. That's no surprise. He honeymooned in Moscow," O'Brien told ABC News, parroting a line Trump used during a campaign rally on Friday.

While intelligence agencies warned Sanders that Russia is interfering to boost him in the Democratic primaries, they have not assessed that Russia wants Sanders to win the general election.