During the 2016 election, CIA director John Brennan informed congressional leaders that Russian intelligence was interfering in the election in an effort to help Donald Trump win. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the conclusion, and depicted it as a frame-up. “You’re trying to screw the Republican candidate,” he charged, warning that he would refuse to sign a bipartisan statement warning Russia to back off. If blocking Russia meant hindering the Trump campaign, McConnell wasn’t interested.
This morning, McConnell took to the Senate floor to deliver a coda to this historic act. In a speech that was notably smarmy even by his standards, the Senate Majority Leader declared the Mueller report to be “case closed,” accused Democrats of refusing to accept the legitimacy of Trump’s election, and called for an end to all investigation or inquiries of Mueller’s findings.
“They told everyone there’d been a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign,” he announced. “Yet on this central question the special counsel’s finding is clear: case closed. Case closed.”
First of all, Mueller’s report did say it was unable to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump and Russia. But that is not the same thing as saying “case closed.” Indeed, on some of the most important avenues of potential conspiracy, Mueller was simply not able to establish conclusive answers. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, gave 75 pages of detailed polling to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian agent, but Mueller concedes he “could not assess what Kilimnik (or others he may have given it to) did with it.” Nor could Mueller fully nail down all of Roger Stone’s communications with WikiLeaks.
Second, one of the reasons Mueller could not establish a criminal conspiracy is that Trump signaled his willingness to pardon aides who stayed loyal, thus encouraging them to withhold cooperation. Attorney General William Barr has argued that the failure to prove an underlying crime means Trump should not be charged with obstructing justice, but of course, this means obstructing justice is okay as long as the obstruction works.
Third, McConnell’s speech danced around the massive evidence of obstruction of justice committed by Trump in the Mueller report. His speech, incredibly, didn’t even mention this topic, which occupies half of the Mueller report.
Instead, he addressed it in a backhanded way by defending Barr. The attorney general is a “distinguished public servant whose career stretches back almost 50 years,” he insisted. “He’s widely respected. Nobody claims he has any prior personal allegiance to this president.” That’s true, nobody does say Barr has any personal allegiance to Trump. Nor for that matter does McConnell, who has let his personal irritation with Trump’s lack of discipline slip into the media on occasion. What both men have instead is a partisan allegiance to Trump, which drives them to protect a figure they understand to be erratic and unfit for office, because doing so advances their interests.
McConnell framed his speech as a call for unity, insisting Russia’s goal was to divide the public. “Russia set out to sow discord. To create chaos in American politics and undermine confidence in our democracy,” he said. To continue pursuing the massive evidence of corruption and misconduct in the Mueller report would somehow help Putin. If Americans “remain consumed by unhinged partisanship,” McConnell said, “and keep dividing ourselves … Putin and his agents need only stand on the sidelines and watch as their job is done for them.”
Note here that McConnell is again denying the same thing he denied in 2016: that Russia intervened not just to “divide” Americans but specifically in order to help Trump win. If American political leaders in both parties had closed ranks and rejected Russia’s intervention, it might have backfired. Instead, McConnell assisted their effort.
He continues to assist by using all his powers to prevent Trump from being held accountable for his misconduct. And he’s doing it all in the name of supposedly defying Putin. If Putin is learning any lesson from this, it is that his next election-interference operation will once again enjoy the tacit support of McConnell and his party.