For a year and a half, Donald Trump ignored practically everyone, including his own intelligence officials, and embraced the fiction that Russia may not have attacked the American elections in 2016. About a week ago, however, the president shifted his posture – and started blaming his predecessor.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has pushed the same line. Asked last week about the Trump administration’s reluctance to prepare for another round of attacks in 2018, Sanders seemed eager to change the subject: “Let’s not forget that this happened under Obama…. If you want to blame somebody on past problems, then you need to look at the Obama administration.”
The problem, of course, is that every time Trump World turns its attention to officials’ response to Russian intervention in 2016, we’re reminded that it wasn’t Barack Obama who was negligent – it was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on Sunday said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “watered down” a warning about Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election and defended the Obama administration’s response to foreign meddling in the campaign.
The language in a September 2016 letter from congressional leaders to state election officials was drastically softened at McConnell’s urging, McDonough said in an exclusive interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
Let’s back up for a minute. 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 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 McConnell to endorse, and the letter made no reference to Russia’s attack, which McConnell was briefed on at the time.
Denis McDonough told NBC News’ Chuck Todd yesterday that this statement was “dramatically watered down” at McConnell’s insistence – and he has no idea why.
When Trump asks in reference to the Russia attack, “Why didn’t he do something?” the president is directing the question at the wrong “he.”
Postscript: Last summer, NBC News’ Kasie Hunt asked McConnell if he regrets the way he handled the threat at the time. The Senate GOP leader responded by dodging the question entirely. Perhaps it’s time the Kentucky Republican face a new round of questioning about his negligence in response to warnings about an attack on the United States.