“For decades, I have used my Senate seat to stand up to Russia,” the Kentucky Republican protested.
Unfortunately for McConnell, two days later came a reminder that he has taken a rather different posture toward Russia of late. Indeed, it appears, he has been key to helping Russian oligarchs with ties to Putin skirt U.S. sanctions and invest in an aluminum mill in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky.
Citing Senate lobbying disclosures, Politico reported Wednesday that two former McConnell staffers had signed on as lobbyists for the Braidy Industries mill, which is 40 percent owned by Russian aluminum giant Rusal. That company has long been controlled by Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch who, the United States alleges, has said “he does not separate himself from the Russian state.” Braidy also hired a PR firm founded by yet another former McConnell aide, the outlet reported Friday.
It is well established in Washington that, as Politico’s Anna Palmer noted in 2014, “there’s little difference between the McConnell confidants who used to be on his payroll and those who still are.” The article specifically cited former McConnell chief of staff Hunter Bates, who is now one of the Braidy lobbyists.
A McConnell spokesman said that the lobbyists, hired by Braidy on May 20, requested two meetings but that those were declined and no meetings have been held “to date.”
McConnell himself had championed the oligarchs’ cause before. After the Trump administration last year exempted Deripaska-related enterprises from sanctions, a bipartisan rebellion attempted to reinstate the sanctions (House Republicans joined Democrats in a 362-to-53 vote), but McConnell led a successful effort in the Senate to thwart the rebellion, which he called a “political stunt.” (In exchange for sanctions relief, Deripaska agreed to reduce his ownership in Rusal’s parent company, but Deripaska could retain de facto control .)
Three months later, the Russian aluminum giant announced its $200 million investment in Kentucky. McConnell declared in May that his vote to exempt Deripaska enterprises from sanctions was “completely unrelated.”
It was also unrelated, no doubt, to the fact that Len Blavatnik, a Ukrainian American whose SUAL Partners owns 22.5 percent of Rusal, contributed $3.5 million to the McConnell-affiliated Senate Leadership Fund between 2015 and 2017, making McConnell his top recipient. Blavatnik — whose partner in the Rusal investment, Putin-allied oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, has been hit by U.S. sanctions — gave millions more to other Republicans and to Donald Trump’s inauguration. (Another Rusal owner, Russian state-owned VTB Bank, is also under U.S. sanctions.)
Russia-backed Braidy, in a government filing, said it sought up to $1 billion from U.S. taxpayers in low-cost debt financing. Democrats, concerned Braidy would supply aluminum to the Pentagon, requested an investigation; Braidy says it has no plans to supply the Pentagon and no longer seeks the financing.
A McConnell spokesman said the notion that McConnell helped Russian oligarchs skirt sanctions and invest in the mill is “an entirely false narrative that has zero basis in actual fact.” He acknowledged that the McConnell-affiliated PAC has received contributions from Blavatnik’s Access Industries and Al Altep Holdings, but he said Democrats have also received contributions from Blavatnik.
This doesn’t appear to be a guy who, as President Trump described McConnell this week when asked about my column, “knows less about Russia and Russia’s influence than even Donald Trump. And I know nothing.”
McConnell was a Russia hawk for decades. But that hasn’t been so clear lately, with the Deripaska sanctions, the Russia-tied political contributions, the tepid support for investigating Russia (“case closed,” he pronounced, before the Intelligence Committee finished its investigation), and his allergy to aggressive action to protect U.S. elections.
I exaggerated last week in saying McConnell has blocked “all” election-security bills since Congress authorized $380 million for the purpose last year; senators unanimously passed, for example, relatively minor measures clarifying that hacking a voting system is a federal crime and denying entry to foreign nationals who have violated U.S. election law. But by the Trump administration’s own assessment, not enough has been done, and McConnell has resisted action on more substantive efforts. As Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in explaining why election-security bills aren’t moving: “The majority leader is of the view that this debate reaches no conclusion.”
But that’s no excuse for preventing the debate from happening. If Americans don’t have confidence our elections are free and fair, nothing else in our democracy has value.
McConnell is free to take any position he likes on oligarchs and Russian money. But if he wishes to shed the “Moscow Mitch” moniker, he’ll stop blocking the Senate from even considering ideas to protect democratic elections.