Former White House chief of staff Denis McDonough on Sunday defended the Obama administration’s response to suspected Russian interference in the 2016 election, blaming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for what he called a “dramatically watered down” joint statement on election security in September 2016.
McDonough told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that McConnell downgraded the language of the letter “asking the states to work with us” on election security, adding that members of Congress had a “stunning lack of urgency” over the matter.
“The lack of urgency that we saw from the Republican leadership in 2016 we continue to see to this day today. It’s beyond time for Congress to work with the administration, to work with the states, to ensure that our electoral systems are ready to go. This is not a game,” McDonough said.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said in response that he would “let McDonough respond to McDonough” and pointed to an op-ed McDonough wrote last year that referenced the statement.
McDonough wrote: “This joint, bipartisan statement was thought by the White House to be particularly important since state and local authorities had been reluctant to accept the assistance being offered by the Department of Homeland Security, and we believed a bipartisan statement would help persuade them to put aside their concerns and work with the federal government to protect our election infrastructure.
“This bipartisan outreach was harder and more time-consuming than it needed to be, but it was ultimately successful, with a statement released by the four congressional leaders on Sept. 29,” he continued. “By Election Day, 33 states and 36 counties and cities had used Homeland Security tools to scan or strengthen their systems.”
McDonough isn’t the only Obama administration official to blame McConnell for inaction on the issue.
Former Vice President Joe Biden said in January that McConnell was skeptical, saying that the Senate Republican “wanted no part of having a bipartisan commitment that we would say, essentially, ‘Russia’s doing this, stop.’”
But to those within the Republican Party – and even some within the Democratic Party – more could have been done before President Donald Trump came into office.
Trump tweeted last month that Obama did not act in the face of Russian meddling, and California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff said last year that Obama should have sounded the alarm to a greater extent.
McDonough rebuffed the continued criticism former President Barack Obama has sustained on the issue.
“We took a series of painstaking steps, including the President directly confronting President Putin,” he told “Meet the Press.”
McDonough said in addition to Obama confronting Putin about the attempts to interfere in the election, the administration pressed Congress on the issue and released a statement from the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence ahead of the election pointing to Russia’s ongoing efforts to sow discord.
“We did exactly what we think we needed to do,” McDonough said.
McDonough claimed that Obama’s discussion with Putin may have prevented further Russian actions, including attempts to affect the sanctity of the elections.
Special counsel Robert Mueller indicted several Russians last month on charges related to allegations they spread misinformation online in a campaign that began well ahead of the general election.
McDonough’s defense of the former administration’s actions in response to intelligence pointing to a Russian operation to skew the presidential election came in response to criticism that Obama could have done more to counter the effort.
The former chief of staff said given the information they had at the time, they “made a series of very important and very good decisions,” and he rejected the claim from a former administration official in a Washington Post article last year that they “sort of choked.”
CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.