Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did something Monday he rarely does — he got riled up and responded directly to criticism as he defended his decision to block election security bills last week that Democrats attempted to bring to the floor by unanimous consent.
He took particular aim at a recent Washington Post opinion item by Dana Milbank titled “Mitch McConnell is a Russian asset,” calling it a “smear.”
Criticism of McConnell’s handling of election security legislation on the left crescendoed after the Senate left town last week. On MSNBC, host and former GOP Rep. Joe Scarborough repeatedly referred to the GOP leader as “Moscow Mitch.”
“I was accused of aiding and abetting the very man I’ve singled out as an adversary and opposed for nearly 20 years, Vladimir Putin,” McConnell said in a fiery — for him — floor speech Monday.
“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 within a couple of hours,” he said, speaking in the third person about himself.
The Kentucky Republican acknowledged that he rarely responds to media reports or opinion pieces, but he did so with emotion Monday.
He dug deep, 25 years deep, into his Senate career to bring up a 1994 Wall Street Journal article about his opposition to President Bill Clinton’s Russia policy.
“Here’s what that article said: ‘The real challenge to the administration’s policy is McConnell’s plan to attach stiff political conditions to that aid, threatening a cutoff unless Russia stops meddling in its neighbors’ affairs,’” McConnell read.
He submitted that, along with a committee statement on Putin from 2000, into the Congressional Record in his defense.
So what set all this off?
Last week, McConnell blocked election security legislation that Democrats attempted to bring to the floor. One of the bills pushed by Democrats in the Senate would require that candidates, campaign officials and family members notify the FBI of any offers of assistance from foreign governments. Another would require the use of paper ballots and boost funding for election security and infrastructure.
McConnell defended his procedural roadblock on the legislation, noting that unanimous consent requests from the minority party are frequently denied.
“This kind of objection is a routine occurrence here in the Senate. It doesn’t make Republicans traitors or un-American. It makes us policymakers with a different opinion,” said McConnell. “But the outrage industrial complex doesn’t let a little thing like reality get in their way.”
The House has sent two major election security bills to the Senate since Democrats regained the majority. McConnell has sidelined both. He has made clear that he believes control of elections should reside primarily with state and local governments.
He’s not alone in that viewpoint. Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt said that further legislation focused on election security wouldn’t be the right thing to do, and he doesn’t expect more election legislation to move through his committee.
“Federal involvement in the process, from our national security agencies, particularly the Department of Homeland Security, I think [it’s] added a significant element in 2018. And that will be even greater in 2020,” the Missouri Republican said following an election security briefing earlier this month.
“Federalization of the process would, I think, add an extra level of confusion rather than an extra level of protection,” Blunt said.
McConnell defended his position on Russian interference in the 2016 election, acknowledging that it happened, and he said that the Obama administration should have done more to protect the U.S. election system. Members of that administration, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, said McConnell prevented the administration from being more public about the Kremlin’s 2016 attacks, claiming he would not sign a bipartisan statement condemning the Russian actions.
“Let me make this crystal clear for the hyperventilating hacks who haven’t actually followed this issue. Every single member of the Senate agrees that Russian meddling was real and is real,” said McConnell. “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.”
McConnell called the criticism of his action on election security “modern-day McCarthyism” repeatedly during his fiery speech.
He said that the original McCarthyism diminished the country’s ability to stand up to the Soviets during the Cold War because Americans were divided against themselves.
“McCarthyism did the Russians’ work for them,” he said, before drawing a comparison to today’s political climate.
“Now, here we are in 2019. Again, Putin and the Russians seek to provoke fear and division in our country,” McConnell said. “American pundits calling an American official treasonous because of a policy disagreement, if anything, is an asset to the Russians. It is disgusting behavior.”