In a world where strongly worded memos constitute action, this argument would make some sense. In a world where the Obama administration had repeatedly and publicly dismissed the idea that Russia was a threat, it’s an expression of impotence. Former Barack Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough claims that the president was handcuffed from taking more assertive action against Russia during the election because Mitch McConnell refused to sign onto a public statement accusing them of interference, echoing a charge leveled by Joe Biden earlier:
— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) March 4, 2018
Here’s the transcript of the entire exchange from MTP:
CHUCK TODD: You brought up the lack of sort of bipartisan, bipartisan urgency at the time. I want to play something Former Vice President Biden said about Mitch McConnell.
[BEGIN TAPE] VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Mitch McConnell wanted no part of having a bipartisan commitment that we would say essentially, “Russia’s doing this, stop.” Bipartisan. So the die had been cast here. This was all about the political play. [END TAPE]
CHUCK TODD: Is — Do you stand by what he said, that Mitch McConnell is the reason why everything was a lower grade, sort of everything that you did in ’16, that you couldn’t be as robust in a bipartisan sense because Mitch McConnell didn’t sign on?
DENIS MCDONOUGH: What I know is that the intelligence community approached the, the entire leadership of the Congress —
CHUCK TODD: So called Gang of Eight
DENIS MCDONOUGH: In the early August–
CHUCK TODD: Yeah
DENIS MCDONOUGH: –2016. Several members of that group did not take the briefing until early September, 2016. Indication number one of a lack of urgency. Number two, the president asked the four leaders in a bipartisan meeting in the Oval Office to join him in IN asking the states to work with us on this question. It took over three weeks to get that statement worked out. It was dramatically watered down. You can ask Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, even the speaker–
CHUCK TODD: And it was watered down on the insistence of Mitch McConnell?
DENIS MCDONOUGH: Yes.
CHUCK TODD: And nobody else?
DENIS MCDONOUGH: Yes.
CHUCK TODD: Okay. Do you have any understanding as to why?
DENIS MCDONOUGH: I don’t.
CHUCK TODD: Did he not believe the intelligence?
DENIS MCDONOUGH: I don’t.
CHUCK TODD: Is there a single thing you guys would have done differently in hindsight?
DENIS MCDONOUGH: Look, Chuck, I spent a lot of time worrying about a lot of different things at different times. Working with the information that we had, I think we’ve made a series of very important and very good decisions. And what I do, what I also believe is we also hol–
CHUCK TODD: You believe you sounded the alarm enough?
DENIS MCDONOUGH: I do believe that. Yes, Chuck, I do.
This, of course, is utter nonsense. Yes, a strong bipartisan memo might have given Obama more political cover to complain publicly about Russian attempts to interfere in the election, but it’s not as if Obama kept entirely silent about it either. In October 2016, Obama publicly accused Russia of malevolently manipulating social media in the election, but only after nearly three months of leaks from the White House and intel agencies.
Furthermore, even that was a reversal, as the Obama administration had reportedly squelched other Democrats from publicly making that case in September. And guess who was part of that effort, emphasis mine?
The White House sought to muzzle two of Congress’s top intelligence officials when they decided to publicly accuse Russia of meddling in the US election last week, sources familiar with the matter told BuzzFeed News.
In a statement released Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff, the vice-chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees respectively, formally accused Russia of attempting to influence the US election. It was the first official, on-record confirmation from US government officials that the Kremlin is actively working to manipulate public confidence in the country’s election system.
But sources tell BuzzFeed News that the White House — which has stayed silent despite mounting pressure to call out its Moscow adversaries — tried to delay the statement’s release. The public accusation was of such concern to the administration that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was personally involved in the negotiations over releasing it, according to a congressional source.
So on one hand, McDonough wants us to believe that McConnell hamstrung Obama into relative silence in August 2016, while McDonough himself was busy shushing Congress in mid-September. Why keep it quiet at that point? At the time, Allahpundit had his suspicions:
That may have been aimed at preserving diplomacy with Russia at a delicate moment, when the two countries were trying to arrange a ceasefire in Syria. An escalation with Putin would upset the negotiations, the White House might have feared. Now, weeks later, with negotiations having collapsed and John Kerry talking openly about Russian forces being investigated for war crimes, the White House has less to fear from escalation, especially with Putin sending advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Syria to try to intimidate American pilots. That’s the charitable interpretation of the timing — that sabers have begun to rattle and thus it’s time to make a direct accusation. If the White House is planning any retaliation for the hackings, either through cyberwarfare of its own or sanctions of some sort, formally accusing Russia of masterminding the hackings is a useful first step.
The less charitable interpretation of the timing is that we’re 48 hours out from a crucial presidential debate and suddenly the moderators are all teed up for a question about how Trump’s pal Vlad is screwing around with the presidential election. “The system is rigged”? It will be if pro-Trump foreign interests have their way, Clinton will say.
Regardless of motivation, Obama clearly found it valuable to keep quiet about the Russians until the first week of October, and Mitch McConnell did less to keep it quiet than Denis McDonough did. Dianne Feinstein eventually made the accusation against Russia anyway in late September, commenting that the legislative branch operates separately from the executive and can make its own decisions on announcing its conclusions. Obama took more than a week to catch up to Feinstein, so he didn’t appear anxious at all to get that accusation out in the open — at least not without as much political cover as possible.
Feinstein’s point cuts both ways, too. Obama didn’t need a PR blurb approved by McConnell to go after Russia. He could have taken counter-espionage action immediately — in fact, the legislature would have had little role in that at all, as intelligence is an entirely executive-branch jurisdiction. The problem is that Obama had been repeatedly warned about Russia during his entire administration, but especially so about propaganda efforts escalating toward the election cycle. Tom Cottom tried to get money into a counter-intel effort to quash this interference, a proposal Obama rejected in early 2016:
The White House opposed a Republican-led push earlier this year to create an executive-branch task force to battle Russia’s covert information operations, according to a document obtained by POLITICO.
Sen. Tom Cotton, a leading GOP defense hawk who has long urged President Barack Obama to take a harder line on Russia, sought to force the White House to create a panel with representatives from a number of government agencies to counter Russian efforts “to exert covert influence,” including by exposing Russian “falsehoods, agents of influence, corruption, human rights abuses, terrorism, and assassinations.”
But the administration rejected the call, saying in a letter to Congress that hasn’t been released publicly that the panel would duplicate existing efforts to battle Russian influence operations — an argument Cotton rejects.
Now McDonough, Biden, and the rest of the Obama administration wants to shove their failures to act onto McConnell for a refusal to sign onto a strongly worded memo — while McDonough and Obama tried to muzzle Democrats from issuing one of their own a few weeks later. It’s nonsense on stilts. To the extent that Russian intelligence managed to play Merry Prankster in the US election on Obama’s watch, that failure belongs entirely to Obama and his executive branch, who all too often confused action with memos and hashtags. Nice try.