- President Donald Trump and others have frequently blamed former President Barack Obama for a weak response to Russian election meddling in 2016 under his watch.
- Obama’s former chief of staff is now blaming Sen. Mitch McConnell for failing to sign on to a tough statement rebuking Russia, saying he was the one who wanted to water down the statement.
- Obama’s power on the Russia issue was reportedly limited in 2016.
President Donald Trump loves to bring up former President Barack Obama’s inaction on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election on Twitter, but now Obama’s former chief of staff is blaming one of the most prominent members of Congress for the administration’s lack of urgency on the matter.
During an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press“, former Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough said that while Obama had hoped to craft a strong bipartisan statement to rebuke Russia for its election interference activities during the 2016 election cycle, he was stifled by a lack of concern from leadership in Congress.
“What I know is that the intelligence community approached the, 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,” McDonough told host Chuck Todd on Sunday.
He continued: “Number two, 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. It took over three weeks to get that statement worked out. It was dramatically watered down.”
When asked by Todd whether he agreed with Vice President Joe Biden’s claim in January 2018 that Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell was responsible for the watered down final version of the statement, McDonough said simply, “Yes.“
Obama’s mixed response to Russian interference
McDonough’s assertion comes amid increased scrutiny on the Obama administration’s role in failing to prevent Russian election interference in 2016, and the criticism hasn’t just been coming from Trump.
Ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff admitted last month that Obama shouldered some of the blame.
“We should have called them out much earlier,” the California Democrat said in February. “While I respect the motive in terms of the Obama administration, they didn’t want to be seen as meddling, the American people had a right to know what was going on and could be trusted to do the right thing with it. And they should have defended being more public and aggressive at the time, at least in my view.”
Even some of Obama’s own former advisers said they were at least partially at fault.
“It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend,” one adviser told the Washington Post in June. “I feel like we sort of choked.”
But McDonough defended the former president’s record on the issue on Sunday.
“Working with the information that we had, I think we’ve made a series of very important and very good decisions,” he told Todd.
The limits of presidential power
Obama knew about Russia’s election meddling efforts months before the election, according to Axios.
In September 2016, Obama personally told Russian President Vladimir Putin at a G20 summit to “to cut it out,” referring to Russia’s interference campaign.
And yet there was apparently little the president could personally do on the matter.
It took some time for the intelligence community to issue a comprehensive report on Russian interference, and even then, McDonough said a lot of the onus to act rested with the states.
“There’s a way to address that,” McDonough said, “which is Congress should stop with this stunning lack of urgency about this question, work with the states to strengthen their infrastructure, because only the states can do that. We can’t. That’s the way we run elections in this country.”
McDonough said in terms of defending state election systems themselves, the Obama administration was able to effectively thwart Russian plans.
“I think it is very important to recognise that there’s two issues here, Chuck,” he said. “One is the sanctity of the vote, that the voter roll, the individual going into that ballot box and casting a vote and making sure that that vote is counted. And we stand by our position that the thing we feared they may do in that spot, they did not.”
Russian political operatives were still able to interfere in the election process through targeted ads, amplified divisive messages on social media, and the organisation of protests meant to deepen social chasms in the US.
NBC News also reported in February that the US intelligence agencies had evidence that Russia-backed hackers compromised voter registration systems or websites in seven states, but never told the states. The US Department of Homeland Security denied the report.
Watch McDonough’s interview below:
— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) March 4, 2018
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