A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: McConnell has some explaining to do for inaction on knowledge about Russians and election

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has some explaining to do. And if he isn’t up front about the rationale regarding his actions — or, in this case, inaction — pressure should be exerted on him to resign.

The issue is Russia and its assault on the American electoral process, specifically the 2016 presidential campaign. Russian trespassing represented nothing less than an attack on the sovereignty of the United States. Rather than join with then-President Barack Obama in a united, bipartisan response to the threat, the Louisville lawmaker was out to lunch.

The question is obvious: why?

McConnell has a well-earned reputation for oftentimes placing party before country. It was McConnell, then leading a Republican minority in the Senate, who vowed to stop the legislative agenda of President Barack Obama, regardless of the consequences, to deprive Democrats of any political advantage. It went so far that, as majority leader, he refused to even permit consideration of an Obama Supreme Court nominee, thus leaving the position open for more than a year.

In more recent times he has stood on the sidelines while a president of his own party, Donald J. Trump, has consistently made a mockery of the most important job in the world so the GOP can propel its agenda.

But his involvement in the effort to expose Russian influence in the 2016 election, which resulted in Trump staging an historic upset over the Democratic contender, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, stands most certainly as the primary example of his cynical self-interests.

Sen. Mitch McConnell

It is well-documented now that the Russian government nefariously foisted itself on in the 2016 presidential election in an effort – successful to a certain degree – to ferment political instability within the U.S. The Kremlin accomplished this by, among other things, hacking the email servers at the Democratic National Committee and using social media to paint false narratives – asserting, for instance, that Clinton was somehow involved in a child sex ring headquartered at a family pizzeria in the District of Columbia.

The ultimate purpose, according to various investigative findings, was to damage Clinton’s electoral prospects and benefit Trump. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in a report issued in January 2017, maintained that Trump was the candidate favored by the Russian government and that President Vladimir Putin was personally involved, ordering an “influence campaign’’ to gum up the works. Additional intelligence indicated that Russia involved itself in the Republican presidential primary in Trump’s behalf as well.

It should be noted that it is impossible to determine whether Russian activity influenced the outcome of an election where Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million tallies but captured the White House in the Electoral College. No one will ever know the answer to that question. But it’s accurate to say a few thousands votes here or there would have changed the outcome.

According to congressional testimony, John O. Brennan, head of the Central Intelligence Agency during the latter stages of the Obama administration, learned about Russian meddling during the summer of 2016, resulting in a communique dispatched on Aug. 4 to a Russian official demanding that the Russian government knock it off. Brennan followed that up with classified briefings to congressional leadership – including McConnell – maintaining that Russia had “brazenly interfered’’ with America’s electoral process.

The White House was advised at approximately the same time and wrestled with how to react to the news, concerned that any action could be construed as a political ploy to aid the Clinton campaign. But in early September 2016 – about four weeks before the election – Obama sought to gain the support from a bipartisan group of congressional leaders for a statement condemning Russian actions.

McConnell said no.

Jane Mayer, the highly respected writer for The New Yorker, said in a story published in the March 12 edition, that McConnell “expressed skepticism about the Russians’ role, and refused to sign a bipartisan statement condemning Russia.’’

That left the president in a quandary. Then-Vice President Joe Biden is on record saying the administration wanted a united front to address the looming crisis but McConnell “wanted no part of having a bipartisan commitment saying, essentially, ‘Russia’s doing this. Stop.’”

As a result, Biden said, Obama determined that “the die had been cast” and that “this was all about the political play,” the traditional territory when it comes to McConnell. The administration proceeded to take several behind-the-scenes actions to address the interference but opted to keep it all background noise as the election progressed.

The Kentucky lawmaker ultimately agreed to sign a letter to the National Association of State Election Directors, along with other congressional leaders, urging the states to “take full advantage of the robust public and private sector resources available to them to ensure that their network infrastructure is secure from attack.”

But the letter failed to mention Russia’s interference. Obama’s former chief of staff Denis McDonough, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press on March 4, attributed that to McConnell.

“The president asked the four leaders in a bipartisan meeting in the Oval Office to join him in asking the states to work with us on this question,” McDonough said. “It took over three weeks to get that statement worked out. It was dramatically watered down.”

McConnell, as is his wont when reports paint him in an unenviable light, has for the most part kept mum on his recalcitrance to meet the issue of Russia’s interference in America’s electoral process head on. His staff has at times pointed to the letter to elections officials he agreed to sign, but that hardly covered the waterfront on the perilous nature of the situation.

Essentially, the nation’s system was under attack from a foreign power.

He opted to ignore it.

Then on Tuesday of this week McConnell opened up on the issue, if your definition of opening up is to say practically nothing, which is McConnell’s stock in trade.

According to The Washington Post, McConnell “laughed off’’ McDonough’s claims, an interesting reaction given the gravity of the situation. Asked if, in retrospect he might have handled things differently, he responded, “No, I’m perfectly comfortable with the steps that were taken back then.”

So was Vlad Putin.

It should be noted, first of all, that Obama’s hands are not clean. Confronted with moving forward without full bipartisan support to reveal the nature of Russian incursions, he backed off. His concern that any aggressive response might be seen as a political tactic is real. In this instance, however, it was necessary. Critics maintaining he failed to act are wrong. At the same time he should have done more.

But McConnell. He alone, according to all reports, brushed the evidence aside. A reasonable explanation may exist. It certainly hasn’t made itself clear to this point.

Taken at face value, available evidence indicates McConnell was playing his political games once again, not only seeking to undercut Obama – his favorite hobby to this day – but keep Trump in the electoral mix.

It comes across as a cheap gambit that did perceptible harm on the body politic – and the American electorate – just to gain an edge. If McConnell had a reasonable rationale for dismissing the available intelligence at the time, he needs to explain himself. If not he needs to step aside and hand the job over to someone who will work in the interests of all the American people, not just those who have registered as Republicans.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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