Milbank: McConnell providing cover for Russian interference

Rather than admit Trump benefited from election meddling, McConnell smothers attempts to address it.

By Dana Milbank

The Washington Post

No, Mitch McConnell, it isn’t “case closed.”

No, Mr. Leader, it’s not “finally over.”

No, we’re not going to “end this.” Neither will we “move on.”

We, as a nation, won’t move on — we can’t move on — because Vladimir Putin hasn’t moved on.

The majority leader took to the Senate floor Tuesday morning to declare his findings nearly three weeks after the release of the Mueller report. In summary: Nothing to see here. Move along.

But even as the Kentucky Republican made that case, FBI Director Christopher Wray was nearby in the Capitol complex testifying to a Senate panel that “the malign foreign influence threat … is something that continues pretty much 365 days a year.”

Russia seeks to disrupt our elections again in 2020, with hacking and social media attacks and techniques unknown. Yet McConnell has the chutzpah to pronounce it “case closed;” when he has been the leading obstacle to defending the U.S. election system against cyberattack by the Russians. Intelligence experts have been beating the drums to build defenses against a repeat of 2016. Every step of the way, McConnell has resisted. Perhaps he figures that because Putin helped his guy in 2016, he’ll do the same again in 2020?

Back in the summer of 2016, when the CIA briefed McConnell and other congressional leaders on Russia’s attempts to undermine election systems and to get Donald Trump elected, McConnell questioned the underpinnings of the intelligence. He forced the watering down of a letter from congressional leaders warning state officials about the threat, omitting mention of Russia.

In early 2018, Congress approved a modest $380 million (of a necessary $1 billion or more) to update election infrastructure. When Democrats pushed for an additional $250 million that summer for election cybersecurity, McConnell’s Republicans blocked the measure, which had majority support.

Then came the bipartisan Secure Elections Act, originally introduced by Sens. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma; Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina; Susan Collins, R-Maine, and three Democrats, and later endorsed by Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-North Carolina. But after White House objections, the Senate Rules Committee, at McConnell’s behest, abruptly halted the bill’s consideration last summer. “I think the leader does not share my sense that we need to pass a bill right now,” the committee chairman, Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, told a trade publication.

Since then, the House enacted sweeping legislation that includes election security, but McConnell is blocking this, or even parts of it, from consideration. “That bill’s just not going to go to the floor,” Blunt told McClatchy News. “Neither is any other bill that opens the door to these issues. Leader gets to decide that, and he has made it clear.”

It’s much the same with the bipartisan Honest Ads Act (McConnell is “skeptical”), the bipartisan Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act and the bipartisan Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines Act; all countermeasures to Russian interference. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, complained Tuesday that McConnell has even slow-walked a senators-only briefing about election security.

McConnell, in his nothing-to-see-here speech, acknowledged that “the threats and challenges are real” but cited “progress” on election security. Among the progress: “According to press reports, the Department of Defense has expanded its capabilities.”

He is so concerned about the threat that he gets his information from the media?

The majority leader portrayed the whole issue as a partisan squabble. He hailed what he viewed as Trump’s strong stand against Russia, citing the arming of Ukraine (Trump’s campaign opposed this), the strengthening of NATO (Trump disparaged the alliance) and new sanctions (McConnell recently backed a Trump bid to end sanctions against a Putin crony).

With hand on heart, McConnell said that Democrats “are grieving” because special counsel Robert Mueller did not find a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Schumer, in his rebuttal, said that if McConnell is sincere in his talk about the Russian threat, he should “put election security on the floor.”

That’s unlikely. Trump fears attention to Russia’s interference makes him look illegitimate. And McConnell doesn’t want to upset Trump.

McConnell was right about one thing on Tuesday. He said that “unhinged partisanship” means “Putin and his agents need only stand on the sidelines and watch us as their job is actually done for them.”

That’s true in greatest part because of McConnell. The majority leader can reasonably claim Democrats are partisan in their wish to investigate Trump further. But Russia’s election interference is different. This is an ongoing attack against the United States; and McConnell weakens our defenses.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.

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