Mitch McConnell Is Swindling You

Today, CNN report­ed that Repub­li­can Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Mitch McConnell thinks it “defies belief” that there are Repub­li­cans who don’t want to inves­ti­gate the role of Russ­ian hack­ers in attack­ing the integri­ty of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Many peo­ple have cheered his state­ment as part of a bipar­ti­san effort to uncov­er just how bad­ly Rus­sia influ­enced the elec­tion, but they’re mis­guid­ed. McConnell is run­ning a con. Let me explain why.

For starters, the evi­dence that Rus­sia was behind the hack of the DNC and oth­er asso­ci­at­ed politi­cians was clear six months ago. In its ini­tial foren­sic report on the hack,  in June of 2016, cyber­se­cu­ri­ty firm Crowd­strike said they rec­og­nized the trade­craft in the breach and traced it back to two known Russ­ian intel­li­gence enti­ties:

[W]e observed the two Russ­ian espi­onage groups com­pro­mise the same sys­tems and engage sep­a­rate­ly in the theft of iden­ti­cal cre­den­tials. While you would vir­tu­al­ly nev­er see West­ern intel­li­gence agen­cies going after the same tar­get with­out de-con­flic­tion for fear of com­pro­mis­ing each other’s oper­a­tions, in Rus­sia this is not an uncom­mon sce­nario… Thus, it is not sur­pris­ing to see them engage in intru­sions against the same vic­tim, even when it may be a waste of resources and lead to the dis­cov­ery and poten­tial com­pro­mise of mutu­al oper­a­tions.

This much was in the open; we know, both from leaks and oth­er stud­ies of the infor­ma­tion secu­ri­ty capa­bil­i­ties of agen­cies like the NSA, that the U.S. gov­ern­ment pos­sess­es even more sophis­ti­cat­ed foren­sic inves­ti­ga­tion tools for ana­lyz­ing for­eign intru­sions into com­put­er sys­tems. Accord­ing to the Wash­ing­ton Post, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion sat down with the major­i­ty and minor­i­ty lead­er­ship of Con­gress to present its ini­tial find­ings. The loud­est naysay­ing came from Mitch McConnell:

Accord­ing to sev­er­al offi­cials, McConnell raised doubts about the under­ly­ing intel­li­gence and made clear to the admin­is­tra­tion that he would con­sid­er any effort by the White House to chal­lenge the Rus­sians pub­licly an act of par­ti­san pol­i­tics.

Some of the Repub­li­cans in the brief­ing also seemed opposed to the idea of going pub­lic with such explo­sive alle­ga­tions in the final stages of an elec­tion, a move that they argued would only rat­tle pub­lic con­fi­dence and play into Moscow’s hands.

So in Sep­tem­ber, McConnell was lit­er­al­ly black mail­ing the Pres­i­dent with the polit­i­cal equiv­a­lent of a nuclear first strike if he went pub­lic with the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty’s research into Russ­ian hack­ing. It was part of a broad­er effort by the GOP to stymie all attempts by Democ­rats in Con­gress to inves­ti­gate Rus­si­a’s role influ­enc­ing the elec­torate, appar­ent­ly con­vinced that reveal­ing Rus­si­a’s attack on the elec­tion was more dam­ag­ing than the attack itself. NBC also report­ed that Rus­sia had sim­i­lar­ly bro­ken into the Repub­li­can email servers, but declined to release any of their infor­ma­tion — a clear sign that they were work­ing to help the Repub­li­cans and hurt the Democ­rats. The self-inter­est was glar­ing, even then.

By this point, the Trump cam­paign had spent enough time poi­son­ing the well by claim­ing it was a con­spir­a­cy with no proof (even though that was not the case and had not been for months), that few real­ly took the issue seri­ous­ly: in the press it was por­trayed as a par­ti­san issue, rather than as a hos­tile for­eign gov­ern­ment inter­fer­ing in our democ­ra­cy. Thus, when the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion for­mal­ly and pub­licly accused the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment of hav­ing hacked into the Democ­rats’ email in an effort to swing the elec­tion in Octo­ber, the charge fell flat. The GOP yawned, as did many jour­nal­ists and the elec­torate (the pub­lic edi­tor at the New York Times lat­er lament­ed her news­pa­per’s cov­er­age, say­ing it nev­er took the sto­ry as seri­ous­ly as it should have because it was too obsessed Hillary Clin­ton’s emails).

When Repub­li­cans even addressed the hack­ing issue, it was to throw cold water on the idea, beg­ging for a sim­ply unrea­son­able stan­dard of evi­dence in order to accept the claim (which many still have not). To get an idea of how insane this stance is, con­trast it to 2012, when a hot mic caught Pres­i­dent Oba­ma whis­per­ing to then-Russ­ian pres­i­dent Dmitri Medvedev that he’d have more time to dis­cuss mis­sile defense after the elec­tion. The Mitt Rom­ney cam­paign, and the entire GOP, went bal­lis­tic. Four years lat­er, a pre­pon­der­ance of evi­dence emerges that Rus­sia was direct­ly inter­ven­ing on behalf of a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date — to the point of their diplo­mats say­ing so, plain­ly, to the media — and the GOP reacts with obfus­ca­tion and hand wav­ing.

Things are shift­ing a bit, now. The media and gen­er­al pub­lic may not have cared about Rus­si­a’s hack­ing the elec­tion when it would have count­ed before vot­ing, but now they do care as one of many out­rages the Trump tran­si­tion has foist­ed upon the coun­try. That the CIA has force­ful­ly come out and accused Rus­sia of act­ing to secure Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion — a much more assertive charge than the descrip­tive lan­guage used by NSA Direc­tor Mike Rogers last month — there is no more wig­gle room for Sen­a­tor  McConnell to stonewall the inves­ti­ga­tion. He might be pre­tend­ing there is new infor­ma­tion that forced him to change his mind, but there real­ly is not — he had this infor­ma­tion months ago and he chose to squash it. He is tri­an­gu­lat­ing, not repo­si­tion­ing.

There is, of course, a catch. The Repub­li­cans who are lead­ing the charge to for­mal­ly inves­ti­gate Rus­si­a’s role in the elec­tion in Con­gress are Sen­a­tors John McCain and Lind­sey Gra­ham, who work on the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. They have high-lev­el clear­ances and could mobi­lize a rig­or­ous and prob­ing bi-par­ti­san, bi-cam­er­al inves­ti­ga­tion. But Mitch McConnell does­n’t want any qua­si-inde­pen­dent pan­el to lead the inves­ti­ga­tion, he wants the Sen­ate Select Com­mit­tee on Intel­li­gence to be in charge. They are more secre­tive than SASC, and their find­ings are much more like­ly to be heav­i­ly clas­si­fied and unavail­able to the pub­lic (think of the tor­ture report).

SSCI is, of course, chaired by a vocal Trump ally, Sen­a­tor Richard Burr of North Car­oli­na. Sen­a­tor Burr has joked about mur­der­ing Hillary Clin­ton (LOL, right?) and spent the last month of his cam­paign for reelec­tion ignor­ing Trump’s brag­gado­cio about sex­u­al­ly assault­ing women to say they’re best bud­dies and total­ly in sync.

That is who McConnell wants to be in charge of inves­ti­gat­ing how Rus­sia was able to influ­ence the elec­tion to favor Don­ald Trump.

Oh, and the oth­er catch? Mitch McConnel­l’s wife, Elaine Chao, has been tapped by Trump to be in his cab­i­net as Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary. And McConnell is not recus­ing him­self from her con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings.

Sen­a­tor McConnell is play­ing along with the Con­gres­sion­al inves­ti­ga­tion of Rus­sia but run­ning it into a dead end run by par­ti­sans with a vest­ed inter­est in pre­vent­ing any new infor­ma­tion from see­ing the light of day. Clever, right? Don’t fall for it: demand he appoint an inde­pen­dent body to inves­ti­gate, like the 9/11 Com­mis­sion. The life of our coun­try is at stake right now, and if you don’t speak up about it, the Repub­li­cans in Con­gress will sell us out to Rus­sia.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.