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Denis McDonough: McConnell ‘watered down’ Russia warning in 2016

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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 dramatically softened at McConnell’s urging, McDonough said in an exclusive interview on “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 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.

McDonough said Sunday 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 they 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 Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and a conversation between President Obama and Russian President Putin himself. 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 the former president was not raising 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 told The Washington Post that this 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 they 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.”



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Pelosi announces formation of a select committee to investigate the Capitol riot

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that a select committee would be formed to investigate the events of the January 6 Capitol riot after legislation for a bipartisan outside committee failed in the Senate.

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'Will be like North Sea oil boom!' Expert highlights Britain's unexpected Brexit victory

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BREXIT Britain could see an economic boom of the scale of the North Sea oil boom in the 1980s if it ditches EU data laws, an expert has claimed.

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Unbelievable! Labour Party tells Boris Johnson to follow BARNIER's advice on Brexit

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LABOUR urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “heed Mr Barnier’s advice” in the House of Lords this afternoon.

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