Former FBI Director James Comey sat down for a long, rather candid interview with MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace on Sunday night, and the two covered quite a bit of ground. The Twitter thread from NBC News’ Mike Memoli is well worth your time if you missed the event.That said, there was one exchange in particular that stood out for me.
Speaking about the period before the 2016 election, Comey was unsparing of Republican congressional leaders who he said opposed making public intelligence community concerns over Russian interference.
“To their everlasting shame, the leaders – (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell, (House Speaker Paul) Ryan – refused,” Comey said. “I think they’re going to have a hard time explaining that to history.”
I’m glad this comes up from time to time, because the GOP leaders’ role in this fiasco is too often overlooked.
Perhaps this is a good time for a refresher. As regular readers know, the Obama White House, swayed by the evidence compiled by U.S. intelligence agencies, wanted bipartisan support to push back against Russian intrusion, and in mid-September 2016, the then-president dispatched counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco, then-FBI Director James Comey, and then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to brief top members of Congress.
Obama didn’t want to be seen as using intelligence for partisan or electoral ends, so he sought a “show of solidarity and bipartisan unity” against foreign manipulation of our democracy.
That didn’t happen – because McConnel refused.
As the Washington Post previously reported, when national security officials told congressional leaders about Russia’s interference, it was McConnell who not only didn’t want to alert the public, he also questioned the validity of the intelligence.
Brian Beutler put it this way: “McConnell ran interference for Trump during the campaign to stop Obama from warning the country about things Trump was lying publicly about.”
By way of a defense, McConnell’s office points to the September 2016 letter, signed by congressional leaders from both parties, which was sent to the president of the National Association of State Election Directors. It warned state officials about possible hacking efforts.
But this wasn’t the statement American intelligence officials wanted elected leaders to endorse, and the letter made no reference to Russia’s attack, which Republicans were briefed on at the time.
Denis McDonough told NBC News’ Chuck Todd in March that this statement was “dramatically watered down” at McConnell’s insistence – and he has no idea why.
Around that time, the Senate majority leader told reporters he’s “perfectly comfortable with the steps that were taken back then.” As Comey reminded us over the weekend, he shouldn’t be.