The Biggest Threat to Democracy and Governance Is Mitch McConnell

With the release of Mueller’s indictments against the Russians who engaged in informational warfare in an attempt to influence the 2016 election, one of the talking points we heard from Trump and Republicans was that Obama knew and did nothing. While that statement is verifiably false, many have noted that it points the finger back at one Republican in particular who stood in the way of informing the public about what was going on: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

As a reminder, back in September 2016 the Obama administration briefed congressional leaders on the intelligence they had gathered about Russian interference. Let’s review what they knew at the time.

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

At that point, the outlines of the Russian assault on the U.S. election were increasingly apparent. Hackers with ties to Russian intelligence services had been rummaging through Democratic Party computer networks, as well as some Republican systems, for more than a year. In July, the FBI had opened an investigation of contacts between Russian officials and Trump associates.

As was affirmed by the release of the memo from Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, the FBI counterintelligence investigation opened in July 2016 based on reports that Trump campaign advisor George Popadopoulos bragged to a diplomat about the fact that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton.

That is where things stood when the Obama administration briefed congressional leaders in September. But according to the Washington Post, here is how Mitch McConnell responded:

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.

While such a move might not meet the definition of “treasonous,” it was a clear example of the Senate majority leader using political threats to keep the American public in the dark about the efforts of a foreign power to subvert our democracy.

However, that is simply one of many ways in which McConnell has undermined our democratic processes. To get a fuller picture, we have to go back to the strategies he used to gain his position as the Republican leader of the Senate. Just as McConnell was about to assume the role in 2006, Zachary Roth and Cliff Schecter wrote the history of his rise to power in the Washington Monthly.

He’s a master of Senate rules and procedures, and he harbors no presidential aspirations that might distract him from his job. But unlike earlier leaders, he doesn’t keep score by legislative accomplishments. For the first time in recent memory, the Senate will be run by a leader with both the ability and the desire to use the institution entirely for partisan advantage.

They also chronicle how McConnell ensured that wealthy donors knew that they would have to go through Republican leadership to enact their agenda and used the funds he was able to raise from them to keep his colleagues in line. That is why, more than anyone involved in the GOP, McConnell has fought against any attempt to put limits on the influence of big money in politics. You may recall that when Congress passed the bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, it was Mitch McConnell who fought back, all the way to the Supreme Court. While that case wasn’t completely successful, it ultimately paved the way for Citizens United to deal a death blow to campaign finance reform.

Roth and Schecter were prescient when they suggested that McConnell would be the first Senate Republican leader with “both the ability and the desire to use the institution entirely for partisan advantage.” We saw that come to fruition in 2009 when he continually rallied his colleagues to implement a strategy of total obstruction against anything Obama and the Democrats attempted to do, while claiming that his number one goal was to ensure that Obama would be a one-term president. For eight years, we witnessed a Republican party that had no interest in governing—only to stop Democrats from being able to do so. As Mike Lofgren explained, for McConnell, that went beyond merely an attempt to stop Democratic bills from passing.

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

Total obstruction reached its peak in 2016 when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died and Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland, who was specifically chosen because his name had been mentioned by Republicans as someone they could support. But McConnell didn’t simply filibuster the nomination. He ensured that Garland would receive no hearings on the Judiciary Committee and no vote in the Senate. That unprecedented move meant that a seat on the Supreme Court went empty until Donald Trump was elected and nominated an extreme conservative. McConnell’s next move was to do away with the filibuster for confirmation of Supreme Court justices.

As I recount this history, what stands out is that in every area, McConnell has been successful in achieving his goals. He kept us from knowing the full extent of Russia’s interference on behalf of Trump in the 2016 election, he defeated any attempt to put limits on big money in politics, he successfully obstructed Obama (except for the few months when Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate), and he preserved a seat on the Supreme Court for a Republican president. The only failure McConnell experienced was that he didn’t make Obama a one-term president.

That is troubling because the majority leader’s successes stem from the most cynical place imaginable. His positions have nothing to do with effective governing or protecting our democracy and everything to do with partisan political advantage while maintaining his own power. As Lofgren pointed out, his strategies rest on the cynical premise of sabotaging the reputation of Congress among the American public. Perhaps even more than the presidency of Donald Trump, McConnell represents everything that is wrong with our politics today. And yet, he pretty much remains in the shadows and out of the spotlight of accountability.

That is why, several months ago, I suggested that Democrats should treat McConnell the same way Republicans have treated Nancy Pelosi. In doing so, they could be clear about what is wrong in Washington (i.e. big money and power games) and who is responsible.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.