Obama’s WH Chief of Staff Blames McConnell for ‘Watered Down’ Russia Response

Denis McDonough refused to take responsibility and accused the Senate majority leader for his boss's tepid warning

Denis McDonough, former President Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff, blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) during an interview Sunday on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” for the previous president’s “watered down” response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

McDonough accused McConnell of changing language used in a September 2016 letter from congressional leaders to the National Association of State Election Directors warning them of the impending election interference. Although many have cast blame on the Obama administration — including President Donald Trump and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) — McDonough resisted the criticism and refused to take responsibility.

Host Chuck Todd pointed to a quote from an anonymous senior Obama administration official published in The Washington Post in June 2017, saying “it is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. I feel like we sort of choked.” When Todd asked McDonough if the administration did, indeed, “choke” on the Russian meddling, McDonough strenuously disagreed.

“Look, um, we, during the course of 2016, became alarmed about what we were seeing and it became, became very clear to us what the Russians’ intentions were,” McDonough replied. “So we took a series of painstaking steps, including the president directly confronting [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin, us going to Congress to press them to work with us to make sure that the states were doing everything they could to protect the sanctity of every American’s vote.”

McDonough said that the Obama administration succeeded in “ultimately releasing a very powerful statement from the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence, calling attention to this threat.”

McDonough further insisted that “we did exactly what we think we needed to do. And in fact, that discussion … between President Obama and President Putin, we believe, was very impactful on the Russia action. Some of the things that we feared they may do, they did not do.”

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After facing further questioning, McDonough eventually pointed to the congressional letter and shifted blame to McConnell.

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“It took over three weeks to get that statement worked out. It was dramatically watered down,” McDonough said.

When Todd asked if “it was watered down on the insistence of Mitch McConnell,” McDonough replied, “Yes,” agreeing that “nobody else” was responsible for the Obama administration’s tepid response.

“Is there a single thing you guys would have done differently, in hindsight?” Todd pressed further.

McDonough replied, “Look, Chuck, I spent a lot of time worrying about a lot of different things at different times. Working with the information that we had, I think we’ve made a series of very important and very good decisions.”

When Todd asked McDonough if he believed the Obama administration “sounded the alarm enough,” McDonough insisted, “I do believe that. Yes, Chuck, I do.”

When NBC News reached out to McConnell for his response to McDonough’s accusation, his spokesman pointed to a July 2017 op-ed in The Washington Post written by McDonough, in which the former Obama official admitted that the congressional letter was “ultimately successful.”


“The White House asked for a letter about election security — not Russia,” McConnell spokesman David Popp told NBC News in an email. “And McDonough said he even asked DEMOCRATS not to do a public statement about Russia during this same time period. Give me a break.”

Although McDonough refused to take responsibility for the Obama administration’s “watered down” response, the former president and his officials fielded bipartisan criticism after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced in February that special counsel Robert Mueller had indicted 13 Russians in connection with the 2016 election interference.

Rosenstein said then, “There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity” of swaying the election in Trump’s favor.

Related: Trump, Schiff Finally Agree on One Thing: Obama Dropped Russia Ball

Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told NBC News at the time that the Obama administration should have established a “more forceful deterrent” and “should have called [the Russians] out much earlier.”

“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,” Schiff added. “And they should have defended being more public and aggressive at the time, at least in my view.”

Trump agreed with Schiff in two Feb. 18, 2018, tweets.

“Finally, Liddle’ Adam Schiff, the leakin’ monster of no control, is now blaming the Obama Administration for Russian meddling in the 2016 Election. He is finally right about something. Obama was President, knew of the threat, and did nothing. Thank you Adam!” Trump tweeted.

“Now that Adam Schiff is starting to blame President Obama for Russian meddling in the election, he is probably doing so as yet another excuse that the Democrats, lead by their fearless leader, Crooked Hillary Clinton, lost the 2016 election. But wasn’t I a great candidate?” Trump added.

PoliZette writer Kathryn Blackhurst can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter.

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