Putting Together the Puzzle Pieces of the Unfolding Story About Russia

As the investigation into Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 election and the U.S. response unfolds, it is like a giant puzzle where we get a tiny piece at a time. Along the way it is important to place each piece where it belongs and then review the big picture the puzzle presents.

Newsweek has provided an interesting piece about a small item as it relates to the U.S. response.

FBI Director James Comey attempted to go public as early as the summer of 2016 with information on Russia’s campaign to influence the U.S. presidential election, but Obama administration officials blocked him from doing so, two sources with knowledge of the matter tell Newsweek.

Well before the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence accused the Russian government of tampering with the U.S. election in an October 7 statement, Comey pitched the idea of writing an op-ed about the Russian campaign during a meeting in the White House’s situation room in June or July.

“He had a draft of it or an outline. He held up a piece of paper in a meeting and said, ‘I want to go forward, what do people think of this?’” says a source with knowledge of the meeting, which included Secretary of State John Kerry, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Department of Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson and the national security adviser Susan Rice.

It could be that Comey or a friend of his leaked this information to Newsweek in order to counter the heat he’s taking for releasing information about Clinton’s emails, but staying silent on the Russian probe. But regardless of the leaker’s motives, it fits with other reporting.

Back in December the Washington Post broke the story about how Russia didn’t simply try to interfere in the election, but did so to help Donald Trump. Buried in that article is information about what was going on in the White House prior to the election about how to deal with this story as it unfolded. While not providing any names, they suggested that there was a discussion about whether or not to go public with what they knew at the time.

Within the administration, top officials from different agencies sparred over whether and how to respond. White House officials were concerned that covert retaliatory measures might risk an escalation in which Russia, with sophisticated cyber-capabilities, might have less to lose than the United States, with its vast and vulnerable digital infrastructure…

By mid-September, White House officials had decided it was time to take that step, but they worried that doing so unilaterally and without bipartisan congressional backing just weeks before the election would make Obama vulnerable to charges that he was using intelligence for political purposes.

As a result, in September a group of White House officials met with House and Senate leaders, as well as the chairmen and ranking members of both chambers’ committees on intelligence and homeland security. Their goal was to get “a show of solidarity and bipartisan unity against Russian interference in the election.” McConnell (among others) wouldn’t play ball.

The Democratic leaders in the room unanimously agreed on the need to take the threat seriously. Republicans, however, were divided, with at least two GOP lawmakers reluctant to accede to the White House requests.

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.

Critiquing President Obama for not forcing the issue and going public with what was known at the time is justifiable. But to do so without placing even greater blame on Mitch McConnell misses an important piece of the puzzle.

When all of our intelligence services are saying that an opponent like Russia is attempting to influence a U.S. election and your response is to say that if the administration goes public with that information you will accuse them of partisan politics, you are demonstrating a willingness to play political games with our democracy. But then, this is the same guy who, in the midst of the Great Recession, said that making Obama a one-term president was his number one goal. Neither the welfare of the American people nor our democracy has ever been a priority for Mitch McConnell. That is deplorable.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.