Important for multiple reasons. For starters, although it got lost in the uproar over the big CIA bombshell on Friday, it was McConnell himself who was named by WaPo as a key figure in opposing revelations about Russian meddling during the election. Obama’s team met with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders in mid-September to share the intelligence with them, in hopes of building a united front if/when the time came to accuse Putin. No dice, said McConnell.
And they made a case for a united, bipartisan front in response to what one official described as “the threat posed by unprecedented meddling by a foreign power in our election process.”
The Democratic leaders in the room unanimously agreed on the need to take the threat seriously. Republicans, however, were divided, with at least two GOP lawmakers reluctant to accede to the White House requests.
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.
“Republicans tried to suppress evidence of foreign interference in an election” is a bad headline. By calling now for a Senate investigation, to be led by the Intelligence Committee, McConnell’s belatedly trying to undo it.
He’s also trying to rebuild relations with America’s intelligence bureaucracy. Note what he says near the end about having the “highest confidence” in U.S. intel. Obviously he’s trying to separate himself and the rest of the GOP from Trump, whose first statement after the WaPo story appeared on Friday was to treat the IC like Keystone Kops, wondering how the people who thought Saddam Hussein had WMDs could possibly be believed about Russia. How is Trump going to work productively with the intelligence community after that? No one really knows:
Former intelligence officers told the Guardian they considered retaliation by Trump to be all but a certainty after he is sworn into office next month. Trump still has several appointments to make at the highest levels of the intelligence apparatus, picks which are likely to be bellwethers for the new president’s attitudes toward the agencies.
“There is not just smoke here. There is a blazing 10-alarm fire, the sirens are wailing, the Russians provided the lighter fluid, and Trump is standing half-burnt and holding a match,” said Glenn Carle, a retired CIA officer and interrogator…
“He is about the juiciest intelligence target an intelligence office could imagine. He groans with vulnerabilities. He will only work with individuals or entities that agree with him and build him up, and he is a shockingly easy intelligence ‘target’ to manipulate.”
Said one former DOJ official under Obama, “He’s a 70-year old billionaire whose entire approach to life was just rewarded. And his approach to life is to not accept facts he disagrees with and attack people who present facts that are inconvenient to him.” Two officials told Reuters over the weekend that Trump’s transition team has made only “incidental contact” with the CIA thus far, even though Trump’s new CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, doesn’t have extensive intel experience. We’re headed for a Cold War between the president and his own intel bureaus before he’s even inaugurated. To circle back to a point I made in this post, what incentive does Russia have not to be even more aggressive with cyberespionage once Trump takes office? He’s already discredited the counterintelligence people who might credibly accuse Russia of spying. If he won’t believe his own national eyes and ears and act on what they tell him, they’re going to be leaking to the media nonstop about intelligence developments that Trump is ignoring. What’s a good outcome from that scenario?
One last reason why this is important: It shows McConnell won’t do Trump’s bidding on everything. Remember, the same Trump statement that brought up Saddam’s WMDs on Friday night also said, “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.'” McConnell’s statement here is him saying no, we’re not moving on yet. We’re going to look into this. He spent his entire career wanting to be Senate majority leader and now he’s got it, and he intends to run his branch (or one-half of one branch) his way — at least on this. (He also disagreed with Trump after Trump popped off about making flag-burning a crime or even grounds for stripping someone’s citizenship.) All of that is an encouraging sign for checks and balances. We’ll see what happens with other potential friction points with Trump going forward, most notably Trump inevitably demanding that McConnell nuke the filibuster so that Republicans can confirm his SCOTUS nominee and pass his ObamaCare replacement with only 51 votes. Will McConnell stand up to him there too? Don’t forget that Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife, was just named to be Trump’s new transportation secretary, no doubt with an eye to making McConnell more compliant on the big upcoming infrastructure push. If McConnell ends up being a pain in Trump’s ass, Chao might find herself out of a job. Is Mitch the Knife prepared to risk that in the name of protecting the Senate’s independence? Let’s hope.
Exit question: Who’ll be the bolder Trump opponent in the Senate, McConnell or his nemesis, Ted “True Conservative” Cruz? Put me down for $20 on McConnell.