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Denis McDonough: McConnell 'watered down' Russia warning in 2016

Former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on Sunday said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “watered down” a warning about Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election.
William B.Plowman

WASHINGTON — Former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on Sunday said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “watered down” a warning about Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election and defended the Obama administration’s response to foreign meddling in the campaign.

The language in a September 2016 letter from congressional leaders to state election officials was drastically softened at McConnell's urging, McDonough said in an exclusive interview Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press."

The warning, written to the National Association of State Election Directors, was signed by the four congressional leaders — McConnell, then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — and it told states to “take full advantage of the robust public and private sector resources available to them to ensure that their network infrastructure is secure from attack.”

“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 said. “It took over three weeks to get that statement worked out. It was dramatically watered down."

Asked if it was watered down at the insistence of McConnell and only McConnell, McDonough responded, “yes.”

The New York Times reported last year that McConnell had questioned the intelligence on election interference and agreed to a softer version of the letter that spoke of “malefactors” to be aware of but did not specifically mention Russia.

McConnell’s team on Sunday responded by pointing to an op-ed in The Washington Post by McDonough last summer where he called the letter “ultimately successful.”

“The White House asked for a letter about election security — not Russia,” McConnell spokesman David Popp wrote in an email. “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, who served as White House chief of staff throughout the Obama administration's second term, alleged Sunday that they “continue to see to this day” the same lack of urgency from Republican leadership in Congress on the issue that they saw in 2016.

The Obama administration has taken sustained criticism, including from President Donald Trump and even the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, for not doing enough to prevent attempts by Russians to meddle in the election or for expressing enough urgency during the 2016 campaign.

McDonough acknowledged that Obama administration officials were “alarmed” about what they were seeing in 2016 and it “became very clear to us what the Russians' intentions were.”

He tried to defend the administration by pointing to “a series of painstaking steps,” including the work with Congress to alert states of what was happening, a joint statement from the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and a conversation between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. That conversation, McDonough said, “was very impactful on the Russia action — some of the things that we feared they may do, they did not do.”

Since the 2016 election, Obama administration officials have repeatedly indicated that Obama did not raise more public alarm about concerns over Russian meddling because the administration didn’t want to appear as if they were politicizing the issue.

“We feared that if it looked like the president was involved, that this was a partisan matter, at the time we were in the middle of the campaign,” McDonough said Sunday. “The president had a view in the campaign. And we wanted to make sure that partisan politics did not color state officials' reaction to the information.”

In June, a former senior Obama administration official anonymously told The Washington Post that the Russia period was the hardest thing about their time in government to defend, telling the paper, “I feel like we sort of choked.”

Asked if there was a single thing the Obama administration would have done differently in hindsight, McDonough didn’t voice those kinds of regrets.

“I spent a lot of time worrying about a lot of different things at different times,” he said. “Working with the information that we had, I think we've made a series of very important and very good decisions.”