After years of deflecting and downplaying the notion that Russia interfered in an American presidential election, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced on Sunday that Russia poses a “significant threat to American interests.”
McConnell acknowledged what all U.S. intelligence agencies have been saying for several years only after Attorney General William Barr reported that Russia had, according to special counsel Robert Mueller, interfered in the 2016 presidential race. The report concluded that neither President Donald Trump nor his campaign had collaborated with Moscow.
McConnell stopped short of saying whether Republicans, who control the White House and the Senate, would take action to prevent Russia from interfering in the 2020 election. The intelligence community has been warning the public since 2016 that Russia was meddling in U.S. elections, and they have repeatedly warned that Russia will interfere in the next election.
McConnell’s statement represents a significant departure from the president, who maintains that no one knows who tried to hack the Democratic Party’s computers and email servers. McConnell also tried to stonewall investigations into Russian attempts to meddle in the 2016 election, including Russian outreach efforts to help the Trump campaign.
It’s unclear whether the Senate majority leader has a plan in the works to combat upcoming election interference, and McConnell’s office did not respond to ThinkProgress’s questions about the issue.
In 2016 leading up to the election, McConnell confronted then-President Barack Obama about the administration’s concerns about Russian interference in the U.S. election. Obama wanted to issue a bipartisan statement calling out Russian interference, according to former Vice President Joe Biden.
McConnell refused, stating that he would view such a statement as a partisan exercise, according to the Washington Post. According to other Obama administration officials, McConnell also “watered down” language in a separate September 2016 statement about election security. That statement failed to mention Russia at all, despite the U.S. intelligence community’s agreement that month that Russia was interfering in the upcoming election. The intelligence community told Congress again in 2019 that Russia meddled in the 2018 midterms, and intends to meddle in the upcoming 2020 election as well.
But now that the Mueller report did not implicate Trump for colluding with Russia, McConnell is carrying a different tune on Russia.
“Russia’s ongoing efforts to interfere with our democracy are dangerous and disturbing, and I welcome the Special Counsel’s contributions to our efforts to understand better Russia’s activities in this regard,” McConnell said.
Special Counsel Confirms No Collusion Between Trump Campaign and Russia. My full statement below: pic.twitter.com/XvIeKmVVgu
— Leader McConnell (@senatemajldr) March 25, 2019
“Many Republicans have long believed that Russia poses a significant threat to American interests,” the Senate majority leader added.
It’s unclear which Republicans McConnell is talking about, given the president’s track record of downplaying the significance of Russia’s interference.
Trump has not issued a statement confirming Russia is a threat to U.S. elections. Rather, the president has consistently sided with the Kremlin over American intelligence services.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2018
Last year, for instance, Trump claimed that he “doesn’t see any reason” for Russia to have interfered. And in 2017, Trump — who has also claimed that no president has been “tougher” on Russia — said that he believed Putin’s denials.
“Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ ” Trump said of Putin. “And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”
Publicly, the president has lavished praise on Putin: he’s said he and the Russian president have a “great” relationship; he congratulated the autocratic president for “winning” reelection, despite advisers warning him not to; and he’s cast doubt on who was behind the hack of Democrats’ emails, saying it might have been a lone actor “in New Jersey” or China.
Trump has had at least five off-record discussions with the Russian president, although the White House has not released full transcripts or notes from those meetings. The Washington Post reported that the president confiscated his interpreter’s notes from one such meeting.