McConnell was responding primarily to an opinion column by The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, published Friday under the headline “Mitch McConnell is a Russian asset.” Milbank described how Republicans, including McConnell, had blocked bills designed to counter cyberattacks, by Russians or other foreign agents, against U.S. elections.
McConnell used what is usually a speech on the Senate’s upcoming workweek to issue an angry denunciation of the column and some liberal commentators on MSNBC, accusing Senate Democrats of helping fan the liberal flames.
Last week, former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testified to Congress about Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether President Trump tried to obstruct the inquiry. Casting Russian sabotage as a serious threat to the United States, Mueller warned that interference efforts were happening “as we sit” in the hearing rooms.
Hours after Mueller’s testimony, Democrats tried to get the Senate to vote on bipartisan election security legislation. Republicans objected. The next day, Democrats tried to get a vote on a bill that would have authorized hundreds of millions of dollars to update voting equipment. McConnell objected.
“I was called unpatriotic, ‘un-American’ and essentially treasonous by a couple of left-wing pundits on the basis of boldfaced lies,” McConnell complained Monday. “I was accused of ‘aiding and abetting’ the very man I’ve singled out as our adversary and opposed for nearly 20 years: Vladimir Putin.”
The senator added: “This modern-day McCarthyism was pushed by big-time outlets. The smear that I am, quote, a ‘Russian asset’ ran in the opinion pages of The Washington Post.”
Fred Hiatt, The Post’s editorial page editor, defended Milbank’s column and criticized the GOP leader for invoking McCarthyism.
“Dana Milbank’s column was a legitimate exercise in commentary, making the argument that Sen. McConnell’s blocking of elections-security legislation will harm the United States and work to Russia’s advantage. Of course it’s equally legitimate for Mr. McConnell to express a contrary view, but the Milbank argument has nothing to do with McCarthyism,” Hiatt said in a statement.
In his speech, McConnell said the Trump administration has taken steps to combat foreign interference, outlining the contents of a recent closed-door, classified briefing by Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and other national security officials. McConnell said the Department of Homeland Security operates an “election infrastructure information sharing and analysis center” that provides assistance to state election officials and has staffers operating in all 50 states, searching for cyberattacks on election equipment.
Saying that the briefing drew a bipartisan ovation, McConnell said Democrats then publicly attacked him for not supporting a Democratic bill that cleared the House earlier this year.
“These pundits are lying when they dismiss the work that has been done. They’re lying when they insist that I have personally blocked actions which, in fact, I have championed,” McConnell said.
A few minutes later Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) reiterated Democratic criticism of McConnell for refusing to have any wide-ranging debate on legislation to boost election security, noting that the GOP leader could open the debate with different legislation than the House-passed bill.
“I still don’t have a really clear idea why Leader McConnell is so adamantly opposed,” Schumer said, suggesting that the reason might be fear of Trump’s public anger whenever the issue of Russian interference in 2016 comes up. “He has put nothing on the floor on elections.”
Congress has responded modestly to Mueller’s warnings. Last year, it approved $380 million to improve election security systems, and last month, the Senate passed a measure to bar people who have interfered with American elections from obtaining visas to enter the United States.
The House-passed bill would authorize more than $600 million for updating voting equipment to comply with new standards between now and 2020, including requirements that voting machines produce a paper record, stay disconnected from the Internet and be produced in the United States.
One Republican, Rep. Brian Mast (Fla.), joined Democrats in backing the measure last month.
Republicans, including McConnell, have opposed the bill because it imposes federal standards on an issue traditionally handled by the states.
“I’m not going to let Democrats and their water carriers in the media use Russia’s attack on our democracy as a Trojan horse for partisan wish list items that would not actually make our elections any safer,” McConnell said. “I’m not going to do that.”
In recent weeks, McConnell also has chided the media for not giving Trump more credit that the 2018 elections were apparently devoid of major security breaches.