Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell launched a blistering attack from the Senate floor Monday on critics who have accused him of going soft on Russia by blocking election security bills, branding them “hyperventilating hacks” engaged in “absurd smears” against him.
McConnell angrily insisted his record on countering Russian aggression is robust and can not be erased.
Speaking heatedly, McConnell lambasted MSNBC Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough, a former Florida congressman who last week dubbed McConnell “Moscow Mitch.”
The senator also tore into Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who accused McConnell in a Saturday column of being a “Russian asset” because he’s refused to take up election security legislation.
“Mitch McConnell, the hawkish foreign policy conservative who spent decades pushing back on Russia every way I can think of was accused of what amounts to treason by multiple media outlets,” McConnell said, labeling them as “absurd smears” driven by a campaign of “modern day McCarthy-ism.”
The criticism of McConnell came as he rejected last week Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s efforts to have the Senate unanimously pass a House bill that would require paper ballots and authorize federal grants for replacement of existing voting systems, a move meant to mitigate the threat from hacking. That request came as former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified that Russia is still trying to intervene in U.S. elections.
“They’re doing it as we sit here,” Mueller testified last week.
McConnell, who has long dismissed the House legislation as the “Democrat Politician Protection Act,” said it had received just a single Republican vote in the House and could not pass unanimously in the divided Senate.
“These theatrical requests happen all the time here in the Senate,” he said. “It doesn’t make Republicans traitors or un-American, it makes us policymakers with a different opinion.”
Schumer, who took to the Senate floor minutes after McConnell, said the Majority Leader could easily prove his critics wrong by putting the election security measures up for a vote.
“Here’s an easy way for Leader McConnell to silence the critics who accuse him of blocking election security: Stop blocking it,” Schumer said.
The New York Democrat accused Senate Republicans of doing “nothing, absolutely nothing” to counter foreign meddling in U.S. elections and said there is other legislation that the Senate could consider to help states shore up security.
“For us to sit here with our arms folded and do nothing, unheard of,” Schumer said, suggesting that McConnell doesn’t want to take up the legislation because it would embarrass Trump.
“Maybe it’s because President Trump, in his child-like way, resents the fact that people point out that Russia interfered,” Schumer said. “He thinks it delegitimatizes his presidential election.”
McConnell accused Scarborough, though not by name, of saying that McConnell had dismissed Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“I’ve never said any such thing, ever,” McConnell said, insisting that he’s spoken repeatedly of what he called Russia’s “unacceptable interference” in the election and what he said Monday was the Obama administration’s failure to counter it.
McConnell and Democrats have long been at odds over which party raised alarms. Both former vice president Joe Biden and Obama White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough have accused McConnell of looking to soft-pedal their warnings about Russia interference before the 2016 election.
Biden at a 2018 Council on Foreign Relations appearance said the senator refused to sign a bipartisan statement condemning the Kremlin’s role. McDonough told “Meet the Press” last year McConnell had “watered down” a statement.
McConnell’s office has disputed both accounts, pointing to a letter signed by all four top congressional leaders in September 2016 and and sent to the president of the National Association of State Election Directors, urging cybersecurity precautions in light of reports of attempted hacking. The letter, however, did not mention Russia.
“Let me make this crystal clear for the hyperventilating hacks who haven’t actually followed this issue,” McConnell said Monday. “Every single member of the Senate agrees that Russian meddling was real and is real and we all agree that the federal government, state governments and the private sector all have obligations to take this threat seriously and bolster our defenses.”
And he insisted that the Trump administration has done more than the Obama administration did to protect the U.S. against Russian meddling in elections.
He said the Department of Homeland Security has deployed special capabilities in every state to detect malign cyber activity and has deployed cybersecurity advisors across the country.
“And using the hundreds of millions of dollars Congress sent to the states — which I proudly voted for and supported — the authorities who actually conduct our elections on the front lines have gotten themselves better prepared,” McConnell said.
He said Democrats at a recent closed-door briefing with DHS “applauded and cheered” the efforts, but “pivoted right back into hysterical accusations that only fan the flames of this modern-day McCarthyism. These pundits are lying when they dismiss the work that has been done. “
McConnell said he backed the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian election meddling, though Senate Democrats produced a point by point rebuttal, noting that McConnell in 2017 had rejected calls for an independent prosecutor after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey.
But McConnell defended at length his record on Russia, invoking foreign policy debates dating to the Reagan administration to insist that he’s been a bulwark against the country’s provocations.
That included asking to put into the Congressional Record a 1994 Wall Street Journal article with the headline: “Kentucky Senator, Handed Keys to Foreign Aid, to be Most Potent Foe of Clinton’s Russian Policy,” noting the article said McConnell planned to threaten a cutoff of aid “unless Russia stops meddling in its neighbors’ affairs.”