Politics & Policy

Mitch McConnell Didn’t Stop Obama from Doing Anything about Russia in 2016

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters after the weekly policy lunch on Capitol in Hill, May 14, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Democrats’ cries of ‘Moscow Mitch’ are an attempt to deflect blame for the success of Russia’s election-meddling from the former president.

One of the enduring myths told by Democrats about the 2016 campaign is that President Obama was ready to issue a stern warning to the American people about Russian meddling that would have changed the course of the election but that he was thwarted by Mitch McConnell. This is self-serving nonsense, and the closer you look at the evidence, the weaker it becomes.

Democrats and liberals have lately been campaigning to delegitimize McConnell by claiming that he is, in the words of Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, “a Russian asset.” Julián Castro, a supposedly serious presidential candidate, called him “Moscow Mitch” in Wednesday night’s debate — a faux-Trumpian nickname that Joe Scarborough and Twitter progressives have been trying to make happen. As Rich Lowry has detailed, their current case against McConnell as a paid Russian sleeper agent is based on his opposition to federalizing state election laws, something he and many other conservatives have been against for decades.

The charge has its origins, however, in Team Obama’s claim that McConnell stymied its efforts to protect the 2016 vote from Russian influence. The claim is equal parts attack on McConnell and excuse for Obama, peddled by Joe Biden and others looking to safeguard Obama’s legacy. That’s why it’s worth revisiting now.

The Accusation
The Washington Post first told this story in December 2016, when Obama was still in office, sourcing it to “a senior administration official”:

Officials devised a plan to seek bipartisan support from top lawmakers and set up a secret meeting with the Gang of 12 — a group that includes House and Senate leaders, as well as the chairmen and ranking members of both chambers’ committees on intelligence and homeland security.

Obama dispatched [counterterrorism adviser Lisa] Monaco, FBI Director James B. Comey and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to make the pitch for a “show of solidarity and bipartisan unity” against Russian interference in the election, according to a senior administration official.

Specifically, the White House wanted congressional leaders to sign off on a bipartisan statement urging state and local officials to take federal help in protecting their voting-registration and balloting machines from Russian cyber-intrusions. [Emphasis added.]

The Post described McConnell’s reaction:

According to several officials, McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics. Some of the Republicans in the briefing also seemed opposed to the idea of going public with such explosive allegations in the final stages of an election, a move that they argued would only rattle public confidence and play into Moscow’s hands.

James Clapper, Obama’s notoriously partisan director of national intelligence — and possibly the Post’s source — made much the same claim in a 2018 book. From NPR:

“House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said they would not support a bipartisan statement that might hurt their nominee for president,” Clapper writes. “I was disappointed but not surprised. It seemed they had decided by then that they didn’t care who their nominee was, how he got elected or what effects having a foreign power influence our election would have on the nation, as long as they won.”

Biden, in remarks in 2018, told a slightly different story, suggesting that the appeal to McConnell was supposed to be aimed as a warning to Russia:

Brennan and company came up and said: Here’s what we know. Why don’t we put out a bipartisan warning to Russia — hands off, man, or there’s going to be a problem? . . . Mitch McConnell wanted no part of having a bipartisan commitment that we would say essentially Russia’s doing this, stop — bipartisan, so it couldn’t be used as a weapon against the democratic nominee of a president trying to use the intelligence community. . . .

. . . Could you imagine if the president of the United States called a press conference in October with this fellow, and Bannon and company, and said: Tell you what. The Russians are trying to interfere in our elections and we have to do something about it. What do you think would have happened? I imagine — I mean, I have a view, but I genuinely mean it. Ask yourselves, what do you think would have happened? Would things have gotten better, or would it further look like we were attempting to delegitimize the electoral process because of our opponent? [Emphasis added.]

Biden’s version of events produced headlines like this one, from Politico: “Biden: McConnell stopped Obama from calling out Russians.”

Say What?
The first question that comes to mind is exactly what Obama or his administration proposed to say or do, as compared to what it actually did. Nobody has ever offered the text of any proposed statement, and accounts of what it was supposed to say are varying, vague, and hard to pin down. What was the issue: Russia hacking voting machines? Russia leaking stolen emails? Russian misinformation? Was the Obama administration hoping to paint Trump as the beneficiary of Russian help with the approval of Republican leaders? Was the intended audience American voters, American election officials, or Russia?

As Politico noted, “McConnell’s office disputed [Biden’s] account, pointing to a letter signed by all four congressional leaders in September 2016 and sent to the president of the National Association of State Election Directors, urging cybersecurity precautions in light of reports of attempted hacking. That missive, however, did not address Russia specifically, or the larger topic of influence beyond voting systems.”

How strong was our intelligence on Russian attacks on voting systems at the time? According to the Post, “Though U.S. intelligence agencies were skeptical that hackers would be able to manipulate the election results in a systematic way, the White House feared that Russia would attempt to do so.” Yet, on October 7, 2016, Clapper issued a “Joint Statement from the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security,” warning that

some states have . . . recently seen scanning and probing of their election-related systems, which in most cases originated from servers operated by a Russian company. However, we are not now in a position to attribute this activity to the Russian Government. The [intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security] assess that it would be extremely difficult for someone, including a nation-state actor, to alter actual ballot counts or election results by cyber attack or intrusion. This assessment is based on the decentralized nature of our election system in this country and the number of protections state and local election officials have in place. States ensure that voting machines are not connected to the Internet, and there are numerous checks and balances as well as extensive oversight at multiple levels built into our election process. [Emphasis added.]

As it happens, the Senate Intelligence Committee recently concluded that Russia was, in fact, probing state election systems for vulnerabilities. As federal authorities became aware of these efforts, they warned the state officials in charge of the systems: “On August 18, 2016, FBI issued an unclassified FLASH to state technical-level experts on . . . the attack on lllinois’s voter registration databases. . . . DHS and FBI issued a second FLASH and a Joint Analysis Report in October that flagged . . . suspect IP addresses, many unrelated to Russia.” Subsequent analysis confirmed that “IP addresses associated with the August 18, 2016 FLASH provided some indications the activity might be attributable to the Russian government, particularly the GRU.”

But the Intelligence Committee’s report also found that, in October 2016, “the agencies did not understand the scope of the Russian effort. . . . Michael Daniel, President Barack Obama’s cybersecurity coordinator, had been convinced that the Russians had gone after all 50 states — because they are thorough. But it was only two years later that official intelligence assessments concluded that he was right.” As Biden conceded, “we didn’t know the extent of it then either.”

In fact, Daniel confirmed in testimony to the Intelligence Committee that he had been told by Susan Rice, President Obama’s national-security adviser, in a mid-2016 meeting to “stand down” and put responses to Russia’s election-related cyberattacks “on the back burner,” in part “because Rice feared the options would leak and ‘box the president in.’” Rice was, rather obviously, not working at the direction of Mitch McConnell.

As the New York Times acknowledged, “there was no evidence that any votes were changed in actual voting machines, [though] ‘Russian cyberactors were in a position to delete or change voter data’ in the Illinois voter database. The committee found no evidence that they did so.” While this should deeply worry us going forward, there has never been any evidence unearthed that any of it affected the outcome of the election in the slightest. That hasn’t stopped the widespread conspiracy theory that it did from taking hold among Democratic voters: A December 2016 YouGov poll found that 52 percent of Democrats believed that it was probably or definitely true that “Russia tampered with vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected President.” By late March 2019, that number had risen to 67 percent.

Was the real issue Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee? The October 2016 Clapper statement also addressed that:

The U.S. Intelligence Community . . . is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow — the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.

According to the Post, “Early drafts accused Putin by name, but the reference was removed out of concern that it might endanger intelligence sources and methods.” Still, this statement hardly went unnoticed: The New York Times quoted it extensively in a front-page article entitled “U.S. Accuses Russia of Directing Hacks to Influence the Election.” The story was overtaken by events — the Access Hollywood tape dropped an hour later, swamping the news cycle — but nothing would have prevented Obama from using the bully pulpit of the White House to emphasize the issue, if he had seriously believed that the public or the states needed to be warned.

‘No Puppet’
That, of course, presupposes that the public had not already been warned. Were voters really unaware, before the election, of the arguments that Donald Trump was unduly sympathetic to Vladimir Putin, that Putin was meddling in the election in ways that in turn helped Trump, and that Russia was behind the hacking of Democrats and the release of hacked information by WikiLeaks and Guccifer? A sampling of what was publicly known and speculated about during the election suggests that the answer is a firm “no”:

October 17, 2015 — The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker, “Putin Loves Donald Trump”: “Donald Trump has said that as president he would get along with Vladimir Putin, and there’s evidence that the Republican front-runner’s apparent fondness for the Russian strongman is being reciprocated” by the “propagandist arm of the Putin government machine.” (Trump himself approvingly tweeted the article: “Russia and the world has already started to respect us again!”)

December 17, 2015Vanity Fair’s Tina Nguyen, “Putin Endorses Trump”: “The Russian president took time from his address to hail the billionaire real-estate mogul as ‘a very outstanding person, talented, without any doubt.’”

December 29, 2015 — Accuracy in Media’s Cliff Kincaid, “Is Trump the New Armand Hammer?”:

With the business dealings in Moscow, and the Roger Stone and Alex Jones associations, a pattern has emerged in the case of Trump, suggesting that he is indeed the Kremlin’s candidate and that his purpose is to disrupt and sow confusion in the Republican Party and conservative ranks. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul noted, ‘Vladimir Putin does only things that are in Russia’s national interest. So for him to be endorsing Mr. Trump, that’s because he thinks it’s in Russia’s national interest for Mr. Trump to be the leader in the United States.’”

February 26, 2016 — Reuters’s Mark Hosenball and Steve Holland, on Trump’s being advised by Michael Flynn: “Flynn raised eyebrows among some U.S. foreign policy veterans when he was pictured sitting at the head table with Putin at a banquet in Moscow late last year celebrating Russia Today.”

March 30, 2016Bloomberg’s Zachary Mider on Carter Page: “Trump’s New Russia Adviser Has Deep Ties to Kremlin’s Gazprom”

April 7, 2016The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson:

Vladimir Putin is the one guy with whom Trump has not engaged in insult comedy. Frankly, given Putin’s behind the scenes dabblings in the affairs of other countries, Trump is just the sort of man he’d want to prop up to destabilize the West. . . . Trump has certainly gained a following nationally, but he needed real support on Day 1. According [to] various press reports, Trump’s solution was to pay people to attend his campaign launch and cheer him on . . . a lot of it is manufactured to convince the press and others that Trump’s support is larger than it actually is.

April 8, 2016The Daily Caller’s Derek Hunter on how, “Some of Donald Trump’s support on Twitter comes from accounts with zero followers who tweet identical messages and who have been part of social media marketing campaigns in the past” including in Russian.

April 2016Politico’s Michael Crowley, “The Kremlin’s Candidate”: “In the 2016 election, Putin’s propaganda network is picking sides [for Trump].”

May 6, 2016Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith and Meredith Kennedy on Paul Manafort: “U.S. foreign policy figures of both parties are raising concerns about a close Trump aide’s ties to allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin. . . . Manafort’s close ties to Russia’s authoritarian ruler match Trump’s own praise for Putin.”

June 15, 2016 — The Sydney Morning Herald’s Chris Zappone, “Donald Trump–Vladimir Putin: Russia’s information war meets the US election”:

It’s no secret that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump like each other. But what’s less known is how Russia is attempting to support Trump through social media, by helping galvanise and motivate extremists who in turn support the controversial Republican candidate. A network of Russian-backed anti-Western websites are linked with American white supremacist, sovereign citizen, and conspiracy theory sites. Activists connected to those sites support the Trump campaign, often parroting Moscow’s criticism of the US, NATO and the general ills of Western society.

July 23, 2016Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, “Trump & Putin. Yes, It’s Really a Thing”: “Over the last year there has been a recurrent refrain about the seeming bromance between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. . . . There is a lot of Russian money flowing into Trump’s coffers and he is conspicuously solicitous of Russian foreign policy priorities.”

July 24, 2016 — CNN’s Evan Perez, “Sources: US officials warned DNC of hack months before the party acted”:

Hillary Clinton’s campaign has accused Russia of meddling in the 2016 presidential election, saying its hackers stole [Democratic National Committee] emails and released them to foment disunity in the party and aid Donald Trump. Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, said on Sunday that “experts are telling us that Russian state actors broke into the DNC, stole these emails, [and are] releasing these emails for the purpose of helping Donald Trump.”. . . Mook told CNN’s Jake Tapper . . . that “changes to the Republican platform to make it more pro-Russian” . . . could provide some of the motive behind the hacks.

July 24, 2016Defense One’s Patrick Tucker:

Close your eyes and imagine that a hacking group backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin broke into the email system of a major U.S. political party. The group stole thousands of sensitive messages and then published them through an obliging third party in a way that was strategically timed to influence the United States presidential election. Now open your eyes, because that’s what just happened.

July 24, 2016Politifact: “The U.S. government has not yet publicly named the culprit behind the DNC hack. But there seems to be widespread agreement among cybersecurity experts and professionals that the attribution belongs to Russian intelligence actors.”

July 25, 2016 — Garry Kasparov: “Kremlin troll master Konstanin Rykov registered ‘Trump2016.ru’ in August, 2015.”

July 27, 2016Business Insider’s Natasha Bertrand: “It looks like Russia hired internet trolls to pose as pro-Trump Americans. . . . Russia’s troll factories were, at one point, likely being paid by the Kremlin to spread pro-Trump propaganda on social media.”

July 27, 2016 — Donald Trump, in a nationally televised press conference:

Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. . . . I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. . . . By the way they hacked, they probably have her 33,000 e-mails. I hope they do. They probably have her 33,000 e-mails that she lost and deleted because you’d see some beauties there. So let’s see.

October 19, 2016 — Marco Rubio, warning that the DNC hacks are “an effort by a foreign government to interfere with our electoral process” and blaming them on Putin.

October 19, 2016 — Hillary Clinton, in perhaps the most memorable moment of the fall 2016 debates, interrupting a Trump answer about Putin’s not respecting her:

Clinton: Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.

Trump: No puppet. No puppet.

Clinton: And it’s pretty clear . . .

Trump: You’re the puppet!

Clinton: It’s pretty clear you won’t admit . . .

Trump: No, you’re the puppet.

Clinton: . . . that the Russians have engaged in cyberattacks against the United States of America, that you encouraged espionage against our people, that you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list — break up NATO, do whatever he wants to do — and that you continue to get help from him, because he has a very clear favorite in this race. . . . We’ve never had a foreign government trying to interfere in our election. We have 17 — 17! — intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin and they are designed to influence our election.

Anyone who cared to know had plenty of opportunity to hear that Trump was uncomfortably cozy with Putin, that Putin returned the favor, that Putin was widely believed to be behind the DNC hacks, that Trump was perfectly and openly happy to receive that kind of help, that the Trump campaign benefited from a variety of shady third-party online tactics, and that some of those tactics, at least, could be traced to the Russians. Much of this, in fact, was well known during the Republican primaries, openly discussed by conservative commentators, and stated explicitly during the fall campaign by Rubio, one of the most prominent Republicans in the Senate. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that an additional warning by Obama — whatever its content — would have changed anything.

Why Obama Didn’t Say More
In order to understand why Obama didn’t come out and say more about Russia, it is also important to review both the political context of the fall of 2016 and the Obama administration’s posture toward Russia.

Politically, it is worth recalling that, between July and October 2016, basically everyone in the Clinton campaign and the Obama administration expected Hillary Clinton would win the election. The overriding concern of both Obama and Clinton was to ensure the public legitimacy of her anticipated victory.

On August 5, 2016, at a White House press conference, Obama blasted Trump for spreading the “conspiracy theory” that the election would be “rigged,” and insisted that “Of course the elections will not be rigged. . . . This will be an election like every other election.”

At a Rose Garden ceremony on October 18, 2016 — the day before the “no puppet” debate — Obama doubled down:

We recognize that there’s something more important than any individual campaign. And that is making sure that the integrity and trust in our institutions sustains itself. . . . I have never seen, in my lifetime or in modern political history, any presidential candidate trying to discredit the elections and the election process before votes have even taken place. . . . It happens to be based on no facts; every expert, regardless of political party, regardless of ideology, conservative or liberal, who has ever examined these issues in a serious way, will tell you that instances of significant voter fraud are not to be found. . . . There is no serious person out there who would suggest somehow that you could even . . . rig America’s elections, in part because they are so decentralized and [because of] the numbers of votes involved. There is no evidence that that has happened in the past or that there are instances in which that will happen this time. And so I’d invite Mr. Trump to stop whining and go try to make his case to get votes. [Emphasis added.]

As the Times said of this statement at the time, Obama’s “sharp words reflected rising concerns among Democratic and Republican leaders. . . . Many worry that if Mrs. Clinton wins and Mr. Trump refuses to accept the result, his stand will undermine her authority going into office and sow doubts about the legitimacy of the process.” It would have been at odds with everything Obama saw as his own political interest at that moment to warn publicly that America’s elections were being fatally compromised by foreign interference. As the Post later reported, “Obama officials feared providing fuel to such claims, playing into Russia’s efforts to discredit the outcome and potentially contaminating the expected Clinton triumph.” Biden, too, ultimately conceded that, “unless you can give harder data than we have now, you’re going to be in a terrible position and it’s going to play into the delegitimizing of our electoral process, which was initially what the intelligence community . . . thought . . . this was all about.”

What’s more, the Obama administration had always recognized the double-edged sword of complaining about foreign hacking of emails at precisely the same time that the chief line of attack against the Democratic nominee was that she had recklessly exposed her email communications to foreign hacking while serving as secretary of state. Victoria Nuland, who served as assistant secretary of state for Europe during the Obama administration, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2018 “that she had been briefed as early as December 2015 about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee — long before senior DNC officials were aware of it — and that the intrusion had all the hallmarks of a Russian operation.” The Obama administration itself had sat on that information until the public release of the DNC emails forced its hand. Focusing even more attention on email hacking in October 2016 would have had real political downsides for Democratic leaders.

And finally, the Obama administration had spent years trying to avoid conflict with Russia, from Clinton’s famous “reset” button to Obama’s “more flexibility after the election” promise to Putin and his mocking dismissal of Mitt Romney’s warnings about the Kremlin: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” That cavalier attitude was gone by 2016, but Obama was still hesitant to pick a fight. Obama said after the election that he had personally warned Putin at a September G20 summit to “cut it out, there were going to be serious consequences if he didn’t,” and maintained this was effective, insisting that, “In fact we did not see further tampering of the election process.” But he also admitted that he had pulled his punches:

I know there have been folks out there that suggest somehow, if we went out there and made big announcements and thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that somehow that would potentially spook the Russians. But keep in mind that we already have enormous numbers of sanctions against the Russians. . . . The idea that somehow public shaming is going to be effective, I think, doesn’t read the thought process in Russia very well.

As the Post characterized the thinking, “White House officials were concerned that covert retaliatory measures might risk an escalation in which Russia, with sophisticated cyber-capabilities, might have less to lose than the United States, with its vast and vulnerable digital infrastructure.” The Clapper statement was also released right in the midst of Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts to respond to Russian involvement in Syria.

In short, the Obama White House had multiple motives to avoid vigorous public confrontations with Russia in September and October of 2016.

The Hunt for Red Excuses
And that is the bottom line: The Obama Administration tried to respond to Russian interference in the 2016 election, but it was too little, too late. By the fall of 2016, there wasn’t much more anyone could do. Russian actors had succeeded in spreading embarrassing stolen communications, and they had also spread a certain amount of misinformation. The Russian effort remained a drop in the bucket compared to the vast scale of information and opinion (true and otherwise) that circulates during a multi-billion-dollar two-year American presidential campaign, but it was nonetheless a particular irritant to Democrats. The most alarming possibility — Russian hacking of the voting process — never came to pass.

Facing an election that surprisingly ended in Clinton’s defeat, and under pressure from partisans to find someone to blame, Obama administration figures settled on Mitch McConnell. McConnell, for his part, likely suspected at the time of his meeting with Monaco, Comey, and Johnson that he was being set up to take the fall for the White House’s mistakes. Simply adding his name to something that looked like the Clapper statement would not have made any difference. Painting his refusal to do so as evidence that he is a “Russian asset” glosses over Team Obama’s own doubts at the time about the available intelligence and its own hesitancy, for its own reasons, to act more vigorously. As Harry Truman used to say, the buck stops at the president’s desk. If there was something more Obama could or should have done, well, that’s on him. He was the elected commander-in-chief, after all.

Dan McLaughlin is an attorney practicing securities and commercial litigation in New York City, and a contributing columnist at National Review Online.

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