Former President Barack Obama’s last White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said Sunday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) insisted in 2016 that a bipartisan statement on Russian election meddling — released fewer than two months before the election — be “watered down.”
“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,” McDonough told NBC’s Chuck Todd, referring to a late September 2016 letter from the majority and minority leaders in both chambers to the National Association of State Election Directors.
“It took over three weeks to get that statement worked out,” McDonough continued. “It was dramatically watered down. You can ask Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi–”
“And it was watered down on the insistence of Mitch McConnell?” Todd interjected.
“Yes,” McDonough replied.
“And nobody else?” Todd asked.
“Yes,” McDonough confirmed.
The Obama chief of staff said he didn’t know why McConnell had insisted on watering down the letter.
McDonough’s story matched post-election reporting in the Washington Post, which cited several unnamed officials, that 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,” in the paper’s words.
And Former Vice President Joe Biden said in January of this year that McConnell “wanted no part of having a bipartisan commitment saying, essentially, ‘Russia’s doing this. Stop.’”
McConnell’s office responded to Biden’s remark at the time by pointing to the September letter to the National Association of State Election Directors, according to Politico. However, as Politico noted, that letter made no specific mention of Russia nor any other attempts at influencing the election beyond “malefactors … seeking to use cyberattacks to disrupt the administration of our elections.”
McConnell’s communications director, David Popp, referred TPM in an email to his response to NBC News: He pointed the outlet to a July 2017 op-ed in the Post by McDonough, in which the former chief of staff wrote “This bipartisan outreach was harder and more time-consuming than it needed to be, but it was ultimately successful.”
“The White House asked for a letter about election security — not Russia,” Popp added in an email to NBC News. “And McDonough said he even asked DEMOCRATS not to do a public statement about Russia during this same time period. Give me a break.”
McDonough told Todd separately on Sunday, referring to the “Gang of Eight,” constituted of the majority and minority leaders of both congressional chambers, and of both chambers’ intelligence committees: “The intelligence committee approached the entire leadership of the Congress in early August 2016. Several members of that group did not take the briefing until early September 2016. Indication number one of a lack of urgency.”
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— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) March 4, 2018