When Donald Trump blasted Barack Obama for not doing more to stop the Russians from attacking the integrity of the 2016 presidential election, he did something he may soon regret. As a result of his tweet, I hope that something that has not gotten enough attention finally will: Mitch McConnell’s standing idly by while America was attacked.
In September of that year, Obama had the clearest picture of what Russian operatives connected to Vladimir Putin were up to, but he did not want to come out with the information on his own, for fear of appearing to use classified intelligence to sway voters against Trump. So he sought common ground with the Senate majority leader to create a patriotic united front against the Russians.
But McConnell refused to cooperate. Instead, he questioned the underlying intelligence informing Obama’s decision to reach out to him. He later threatened to publicly accuse Obama of doing precisely what Obama had tried to avoid: using classified intelligence to sway voters against Trump. Obama could have acted alone at that point, but decided, to his eternal regret, to remain silent.
We will never know whether it would have made a difference if Obama had told the nation we were under attack. What we do know, however, is that there is a clear pattern of behavior on the part of Republicans who decide against doing the right thing for the nation when doing so comes in conflict with what benefits the GOP.
I’m not talking about policy differences, like whether the Republicans should have supported the Affordable Care Act (a law that has improved the lives of millions). I’m talking about objectively clear and historically pivotal moments in which the GOP literally chose party over country. McConnell’s inaction while the Russians attacked the integrity of the presidential election is a feature of the modern Republican Party, not a bug.
During the final year of the George W. Bush administration, when it was clear that if Congress did not stabilize Wall Street banks, the economy would head towards a second Great Depression, House Republicans told the outgoing president they would not support a bailout.
During the first year of the Obama administration, when it was agonizingly clear that if Congress did not stimulate the economy with a colossal nearly $1 trillion spending package the economy could head towards a second Great Depression, House Republicans told the newly inaugurated president that he was on his own.
During the Obama years, Republicans who had refused to support both the bank bailout and the stimulus withheld support when it came time to raise the country’s debt ceiling, which threatened default on America’s debt obligations, and thus threatened a new global economic meltdown. Then-House Speaker John Boehner, who had informed President George W. Bush that his conference would not support the Wall Street bailout, was forced to turn to House Democrats to raise the debt ceiling.
In each instance, Republicans were asked to do the right thing but objected. Worse, when it was clear that doing so came with political costs—enormous deficits, unclear outcomes—the Republicans capitalized on that cost, savaging the Democrats during the Obama years for doing the right thing. Literally no good deed went unpunished.
In strictly partisan terms, playing hardball with the Democrats while a massive crisis unfolds makes sense: when the opposition needs your help, it means the opposition is bargaining from a position of weakness. For a partisan, that’s a moment you’ve been waiting for.
But in terms of patriotism, such behavior is vile. Republicans not only refused to do the right thing; they punished the Democrats for doing so. In many ways, this was Obama’s fundamental flaw, a flaw that the Republicans identified and exploited right away. He truly believed that country comes first and could not fathom a political party that did not believe the same. The Republicans played him like a song, blocking everything he wanted, even if what he wanted was what the Republicans had formerly wanted, and even if what he wanted would have helped America.
It remains to be seen whether McConnell will be punished for turning a blind eye while the integrity of a presidential election was under attack. Frankly, I don’t see why he would be. When democratic norms are eroded, trust in government declines, which is all the better for a party whose stock-in-trade is distrust of “big government.”
To the contrary, McConnell has already been rewarded. After doing nothing while the Russians conducted “information warfare,” Trump’s election ensured McConnell could preserve the conservative majority of the Supreme Court before ramming through historic tax cuts for the GOP’s donor class. Again, from a strictly partisan view, McConnell’s willingness to trade love of country for cold political advantage was sheer genius.
Until it’s seen for exactly what it was. Then it won’t look so clever. That is why I’m glad Trump is trying to slough off responsibility for Russia’s information warfare by asking why Obama didn’t do more. Obama tried. He really did. The same can’t be said of McConnell.