Dems accuse White House of caving to Trump's 'ego' on Russian meddling

Democrats blasted the White House Wednesday following back-to-back reports that administration officials were discouraged from raising concerns about Russian interference in the 2020 election. 

Several Democratic lawmakers characterized allegations that White House staffers are rebuffing administration officials as "troubling" and questioned if aides were dodging the topic over fear of irritating President TrumpDonald John TrumpPapadopoulos on AG's new powers: 'Trump is now on the offense' Pelosi uses Trump to her advantage Mike Pence delivers West Point commencement address MORE

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharKlobuchar to roll out policy priorities for farmers in Iowa 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan Samantha Bee slams 2020 Democrats who go on Fox News MORE (D-Minn.), who is running for her party's 2020 nomination, accused top White House aides of cowing to Trump's "ego." 

"Securing our elections from foreign influence is not something the President can choose to opt out of because of his ego," Klobuchar said. 

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Facebook won't remove doctored Pelosi video | Trump denies knowledge of fake Pelosi videos | Controversy over new Assange charges | House Democrats seek bipartisan group on net neutrality Manning: Additional Assange charges are feds using the law 'as a sword' Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Senators unveil sweeping bipartisan health care package | House lawmakers float Medicare pricing reforms | Dems offer bill to guarantee abortion access MORE (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, remarked in his own tweet, "Let me get this straight...the White House won't secure our elections against foreign hackers because they don't want to hurt [Trump's] feelings." 

"It almost seems like Donald Trump wants Russia to interfere in the 2020 elections. I wonder why?" wrote Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyHillicon Valley: Assange hit with 17 more charges | Facebook removes record 2.2B fake profiles | Senate passes anti-robocall bill | Senators offer bill to help companies remove Huawei equipment Senate passes anti-robocall bill The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi fires back in feud with Trump MORE (D-Mass.). 

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The public alarm bells come after The New York Times reported that acting chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyTrump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit On The Money: Judge rules banks can give Trump records to House | Mnuchin pegs debt ceiling deadline as 'late summer' | Democrats see momentum in Trump tax return fight | House rebukes Trump changes to consumer agency House rebukes Mulvaney's efforts to rein in consumer bureau MORE warned former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump Citizenship and Immigration Services head out at agency Congressional Hispanic Caucus demands answers on death of migrant children Trump expected to tap Cuccinelli for new immigration post MORE not to brief Trump on possible interference in the upcoming election, despite her concerns that it was a key national security issue. 

Mulvaney, according to the Times, said it “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below [the president's] level."

Another official told CNN Wednesday that it was like "pulling teeth" to try to get the White House to gear up for potential interference in the 2020 election. 

The official, who went unnamed, said that Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsFive takeaways from Barr's new powers in 'spying' probe Trump declassification move unnerves Democrats Hillicon Valley: Facebook co-founder calls for breaking up company | Facebook pushes back | Experts study 2020 candidates to offset 'deepfake' threat | FCC votes to block China Mobile | Groups, lawmakers accuse Amazon of violating children's privacy MORE feels that the White House is not being "forward-leaning enough in notifying Congress and the American people" about the need to take Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. affairs more seriously.

"In general, senior White House staff felt it wasn't a good idea to bring up issues related to Russia in front of the president," the unnamed official said.

Asked about The New York Times's report, Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaPelosi uses Trump to her advantage Progressive Democrat says Trump victory shed light on divide between Silicon Valley, rural US Democratic rep says targeted sanctions on Huawei are 'reasonable' MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, told CNN that he would "welcome" Nielsen's testimony on the alleged incident. 

"I never thought I would be defending Kirstjen Nielsen's judgment, because of her role in the border, but in this case, she was raising the issue of interference, not just in elections but cyberattack. She went to the White House and said, 'look, our power grids are potentially vulnerable,'" Khanna told CNN's John Berman. 

Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonDHS suggests new role for cybersecurity staff — helping with border crisis Hillicon Valley: Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact | Phone carriers largely end sharing of location data | Huawei pushes back on ban | Florida lawmakers demand to learn counties hacked by Russians | Feds bust 0M cybercrime group Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact MORE's office said Wednesday that there's no plan "at this time" to have Nielsen testify before the House Homeland Security Committee, which the Mississippi Democrat chairs. 

GOP Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOn The Money: Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump | Trump to offer B aid package for farmers | House votes to boost retirement savings | Study says new tariffs to double costs for consumers Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump Hillicon Valley: Google delays cutting off Huawei | GOP senators split over breaking up big tech | Report finds DNC lagging behind RNC on cybersecurity MORE (Utah) expressed skepticism about Mulvaney's reported direction to Nielsen, saying it "doesn't make a lot of sense" to try to keep Russia's election interference off Trump's radar. But Lee stopped short of criticizing Mulvaney directly.

"I don't want to armchair quarterback the White House chief of staff. ... It may well be that what he was saying was, let's find the right time and place and manner in which to bring that up. And I suspect that that's the case. If it is the case, that's not terribly troubling," he said. 

The reports that White House staff tried to stifle talk about how to combat interference in the 2020 election comes less than a week after the Justice Department released a 448-page, redacted report from special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump orders more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions Trump: Democrats just want Mueller to testify for a 'do-over' Graham: Mueller investigation a 'political rectal exam' MORE detailing his investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. 

Trump repeatedly derided Mueller's nearly two-year probe as a "witch hunt," despite eight U.S. intelligence agencies concluding in January 2017 that Russians interfered in the presidential election. And the heads of multiple agencies have warned of ongoing attempts to infiltrate U.S. elections, although the director of national intelligence did not find any direct interference in the 2018 midterm elections. Trump has been reluctant to accept the intelligence community's findings, though his administration says he accepts that Russia did make attempts to meddle in the election.

The release of Mueller's report has revived calls from lawmakers to pass new election security legislation or tougher Russia sanctions in an effort to deter future election interference. Similar efforts stalled during the previous Congress amid policy divisions and the politics of the 2018 midterm elections. 

Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenOvernight Defense: Details on Senate's 0B defense bill | Bill rejects Trump plan to skirt budget caps | Backfills money for border wall | Defense chief says more troops could head to Mideast Senate defense bill would pull Turkey from F-35 partnership if it buys Russian missile system Trump, Europe increasingly at odds on Iran MORE (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Wednesday's reports "deeply troubling" and "unconscionable," while Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyBiden under pressure from environmentalists on climate plan 2020 Democrats put spotlight on disabilities issues Why Congress needs to bring back tax deduction for worker expenses MORE Jr. (D-Pa.), said Trump appeared to be "shirking" his duty to protect the United States. 

"There is no question: Russia will continue to try to interfere in our democracy.We cannot afford for the administration to sit back while Russia deliberately attempts to undermine public faith in our democratic process," Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSan Francisco police chief apologizes for raid on journalist's home Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign Senate Democrats to House: Tamp down the impeachment talk MORE (D-Calif.), who is also running for president, said in a tweet.

Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenPhoto showing 3-year-old girl high-five new Harriet Tubman mural goes viral The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Democrats grill Trump Interior chief for saying he hasn't 'lost sleep' over climate change MORE (D-Md.), pointing to the Times and CNN reports, called Wednesday for Congress to pass legislation imposing penalties on Russia or other foreign powers that engage in efforts to interfere in U.S. elections.

"Let’s stop pretending that Trump will ever act to prevent Russia from interfering in our elections. This Administration has no intention of protecting the integrity of our democracy," Van Hollen said. "Congress must immediately pass the DETER Act—the next elections will be here before we know it." 

—Mike Lillis contributed