Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) batted away questions Tuesday about accusations that he “dramatically watered down” a bipartisan appeal for states to step up election security in the face of Russian aggression during the 2016 elections.
Denis McDonough, President Barack Obama’s last chief of staff, made the charge Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” saying McConnell was single-handedly responsible for downgrading the language in a letter “asking the states to work with us” to better secure election systems in light of intelligence indicating Russia was attempting to interfere in the election. McDonough also complained that lawmakers have shown a “stunning lack of urgency about this question” — especially top GOP leaders.
“The lack of urgency that we saw from the Republican leadership in 2016, we continue to see to this day today,” McDonough told NBC. “It’s beyond time for Congress to work with the administration, to work with the states, to ensure that our electoral systems are ready to go. This is not a game.”
McConnell laughed off the accusation Tuesday.
“This is the same old thing they’ve been saying for weeks,” he told reporters at a weekly media availability. “I’ve issued a statement on that a couple of weeks ago, and I’d be happy to send it to you again.”
There is no specific statement from a couple of weeks ago, according to McConnell’s top spokesman, Don Stewart. Instead, his office provides responses whenever reporters inquire about accusations like McDonough’s, he said.
Asked whether he wished he had handled the accusations about Russian interference differently ahead of the 2016 elections, McConnell said, “No, I’m perfectly comfortable with the steps that were taken back then.”
On Sunday, Stewart accused McDonough of having a selective memory. At the time, Stewart pointed out, the administration did not want to publicize the Russia connection, and McDonough even wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that he had asked Democrats to avoid calling out Russia publicly “mainly to avoid politicizing the issue.”
“Give me a break,” Stewart added.
On Tuesday, former vice president Joe Biden said that McConnell “wanted no part” in issuing a bipartisan statement warning of Russian interference.
Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, Biden said that weeks ahead of the elections, he approached McConnell about signing on to a public warning about the meddling. The Obama administration wanted it to be “Bipartisan, so it couldn’t be used as a weapon against the Democratic nominee of a president trying to use the intelligence community,” Biden said, according to a report by CBS News.
It was a “constant tight rope” of determining what to do with that information in the weeks leading up to the election, Biden said, according to CBS. The Obama administration learned more about Russian interference after the election.
The back-and-forth exposes yet again the ongoing standoff between senior Democrats and Republicans over who should be held responsible for Russian election interference. President Trump joined the fray Monday by tweeting that “Obama did NOTHING about Russian meddling” before the election, even though the Obama administration launched an investigation into Trump’s campaign “long before the Election.”
Meanwhile, new sanctions against Russia will probably be unveiled soon, senior administration officials said Tuesday.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin “very shortly will be bringing out a list of sanctions on those individuals that had been complicit” in the cyber-measures described in the charges announced by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office. Coats also said the list would go beyond those 13 names in the indictment.
Testifying to a House subcommittee, Mnuchin said, “I expect in the next several weeks we will be moving forward with sanctions on Russia as a result of the act.”