The New York Times / YouTube Mitch McConnell Congratulates Trump The New...
The New York Times / YouTube

On Meet The Press this morning, former Obama White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough gave a wee bit more light on one of the most puzzling single incidents in the government attempts to warn the public of a campaign of Russian propaganda and espionage efforts bent at altering the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. McDonough was asked by host Chuck Todd whether he “stood by” a claim by former Vice President Joe Biden that Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, in the summer before the election, obstructed a fuller bipartisan warning of Russia’s actions to the American public.

CHUCK TODD: Is — Do you stand by what [former Vice President Joe Biden] said, that Mitch McConnell is the reason why everything was a lower grade, sort of everything that you did in ’16, that you couldn’t be as robust in a bipartisan sense because Mitch McConnell didn’t sign on?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: What I know is that the intelligence community approached the, the entire leadership of the Congress […] Several members of that group did not take the briefing until early September, 2016. Indication number one of a lack of urgency.

Number two, 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. It took over three weeks to get that statement worked out. It was dramatically watered down. You can ask Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, even the speaker–

TODD: And it was watered down on the insistence of Mitch McConnell?

MCDONOUGH: Yes.

TODD: And nobody else?

MCDONOUGH: Yes.

TODD: Okay. Do you have any understanding as to why?

MCDONOUGH: I don’t.

In being puzzled by McConnell’s actions, McDonough finds himself in the company of, well, all the rest of us; that even he is unable to offer any insights into McConnell’s reasoning is not terribly comforting.

What we know of the incident he is describing remains limited. President Obama had specifically summoned the top House and Senate leaders in an effort to gain their endorsement for what the White House envisioned as a bipartisan government-issued public warning of the Russian hacking efforts; this was done after an alarmed CIA Director John Brennan had sought out the top lawmakers for individual classified briefings on the subject:

In an Aug. 25 briefing for Harry Reid, then the top Democrat in the Senate, Mr. Brennan indicated that Russia’s hackings appeared aimed at helping Mr. Trump win the November election, according to two former officials with knowledge of the briefing.

The officials said Mr. Brennan also indicated that unnamed advisers to Mr. Trump might be working with the Russians to interfere in the election. The F.B.I. and two congressional committees are now investigating that claim, focusing on possible communications and financial dealings between Russian affiliates and a handful of former advisers to Mr. Trump. So far, no proof of collusion has emerged publicly. […]

But Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, resisted, questioning the underpinnings of the intelligence, according to officials with knowledge of the discussions.

Why was Sen. McConnell, in particular, skeptical of the intelligence community’s conclusions? Why did he believe he was better situated to understand the scope of Russian hacking, and its dangers, and possible ties to members of the Trump campaign team, than was the national intelligence community—to the point of blocking the public warning that intelligence community and the administration wanted to make until it had been, in McDonough’s words, “dramatically watered down?” Why did he warn Obama that, if the White House made public the original, non-watered-down versions, he would publicly call that effort partisan?

Like McDonough, we simply don’t know. McConnell has never offered a substantive accounting for his obstructions and, as of yet, other national lawmakers have shown little interest in exploring them.

But Sen. Mitch McConnell was presumably given the precise same information, by the CIA director, that Democrats like Adam Schiff, Dianne Feinstein, and Harry Reid had received; McConnell was apparently alone in both his skepticism and his insistence that the matter not be elevated to the extent that the Brennan and others desired.

It remains a curious episode, to say the least. We should not crudely presume that Sen. McConnell was attempting to thwart a more aggressive public warning of Russian actions simply because McConnell had been informed those efforts were aimed at helping his own party and hurting his ideological opponents. But if he has another explanation, he might want to offer it.

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