Senate

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 Trump. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (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 Wyden (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 Markey (D-Mass.). 

{mosads}The public alarm bells come after The New York Times reported that acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney warned former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen 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 Coats 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 Khanna (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 Thompson’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 Lee (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 Mueller 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 Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Wednesday’s reports “deeply troubling” and “unconscionable,” while Sen. Bob Casey 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 Harris (D-Calif.), who is also running for president, said in a tweet.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (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 

Tags 2020 election Amy Klobuchar Bennie Thompson Bob Casey Chris Van Hollen Dan Coats Department of Homeland Security Donald Trump Ed Markey foreign election meddling Jeanne Shaheen Kirstjen Nielsen Mick Mulvaney Mike Lee Ro Khanna Robert Mueller Ron Wyden White House
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