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 Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill The Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes Harris to appear in CNN climate town hall after backlash 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 WydenWyden blasts FEC Republicans for blocking probe into NRA over possible Russia donations Wyden calls for end to political ad targeting on Facebook, Google Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity 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 MarkeyJoseph Kennedy mulling primary challenge to Markey in Massachusetts Overnight Energy: Trump sparks new fight over endangered species protections | States sue over repeal of Obama power plant rules | Interior changes rules for ethics watchdogs To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies 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 says he'll decide on foreign aid cuts within a week Dick Cheney to attend fundraiser supporting Trump reelection: report Chris Wallace becomes Trump era's 'equal opportunity inquisitor' MORE warned former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenDOJ to Supreme Court: Trump decision to end DACA was lawful Top immigration aide experienced 'jolt of electricity to my soul' when Trump announced campaign Trump casts uncertainty over top intelligence role 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 Coats10 declassified Russia collusion revelations that could rock Washington this fall 11 Essential reads you missed this week Trump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move 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) KhannaKing incites furor with abortion, rape and incest remarks San Jose mayor proposes mandatory liability insurance for gun owners Democrats give cold shoulder to Warren wealth tax 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 ThompsonTrump officials unveil rule allowing indefinite migrant family detentions House committee heads demand Coast Guard Academy explain handling of harassment allegations Hillicon Valley: House panel subpoenas 8chan owner | FCC takes step forward on T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Warren wants probe into FTC over Equifax settlement | Groups make new push to end surveillance program 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 LeeMcConnell, allies lean into Twitter, media 'war' Conservatives buck Trump over worries of 'socialist' drug pricing Criminal justice reform should extend to student financial aid 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 MuellerMueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony 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 ShaheenSunday shows - Recession fears dominate Lewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' Lewandowski says he's 'happy' to testify before House panel 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 CaseyThe Hill's Morning Report - Progressives, centrists clash in lively Democratic debate Democrats press Trump Treasury picks on donor disclosure guidelines Pennsylvania school district turns down local businessman's offer to pay off student lunch debts 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 HarrisSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Top adviser on Sanders: 'He's always been underestimated' 'The Simpsons' pokes fun at Trump's feud with 'the squad' MORE (D-Calif.), who is also running for president, said in a tweet.

Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenSenate Democrats push Trump to permanently shutter migrant detention facility USDA eases relocation timeline as researchers flee agency Fed to launch real-time payments system in 2023 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