Senator Mitch McConnell is usually impervious to criticism, even celebrating the nasty nicknames critics bestow on him. But Mr. McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is incensed by the name “Moscow Mitch,” and even more miffed that he has been called a “Russian asset” by critics who accuse him of single-handedly blocking stronger election security measures after Russia’s interference in 2016.
Democrats had been making the case for months, but it was supercharged last week by the testimony of Robert S. Mueller III, the former special counsel, who told the House Intelligence Committee that the Russians were back at it “as we sit here.”
Mr. McConnell cites several reasons for his opposition — a longstanding resistance to federal control over state elections, newly enacted security improvements that were shown to have worked in the 2018 voting and his suspicion that Democrats are trying to gain partisan advantage with a host of proposals.
Republican colleagues say that Mr. McConnell, a longtime foe of tougher campaign finance restrictions and disclosure requirements, is leery of even entering into legislative negotiation that could touch on fund-raising and campaign spending.
“Democrats want more aggressive legislation to protect America’s elections after Robert Mueller’s stark warning about Russian interference,” began one report aired on a Louisville television station last week. “Mitch McConnell blocked it.”
Even President Trump felt compelled to come to his defense — as only he could.
“Mitch McConnell is a man that knows less about Russia and Russian influence than even Donald Trump,” the president told reporters Tuesday as he was leaving for a speech in Jamestown, Va. “And I know nothing.”
That did not relieve the heat on the majority leader, who on Monday had appeared to open the door ever so slightly to doing more on election preparedness.
“I’m sure all of us will be open to discussing further steps Congress, the executive branch, the states and the private sector might take to defend our elections against foreign interference,” he said as he seethed on the Senate floor over what he described as McCarthy-style attacks on his integrity and distortions of both his position on election security and his hawkish history of challenging Russia.
Throughout his political career, Mr. McConnell has made opposition to the Kremlin a hallmark of his foreign policy stands.
For once, Democrats seemed to be getting to a man who has embraced his portrayal as Darth Vader and the Grim Reaper overseeing a Senate graveyard for legislation that he opposes. When an unsubstantiated West Virginia Senate campaign ad in 2018 called him “Cocaine Mitch,” he began answering his Senate telephone with that identifier.
“Moscow Mitch”? Not so much: “I was called unpatriotic, un-American and essentially treasonous,” he fumed on the Senate floor.
Democrats pressed their advantage. And why not? The hashtag #MoscowMitchMcTraitor was trending on Twitter, and Senate Republicans of all stripes were being asked about the blockade.
“So long as the Senate Republicans prevent legislation from reaching the floor, so long as they oppose additional appropriations to the states, so long as they malign election security provisions as, quote, partisan wish lists, the critics are right to say Leader McConnell and Republican senators are blocking election security,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said on the floor Tuesday.
Mr. Schumer has in the past suggested that another potential reason behind Mr. McConnell’s position is the thought that interference emanating from Russia could aid Republicans. “I hope it’s not because he thinks it will benefit him, because Putin could turn around in a minute, and then do things that he doesn’t like,” Mr. Schumer said in June.
Lawmakers in both parties have election security proposals waiting on the sidelines, and the furor has caused some to step up demands for Congress to take up their bills.
Senators Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, wrote on Monday to colleagues reconciling the annual House and Senate military policy bill to request that they include stalled sanctions legislation meant to deter Russia or other foreign actors from interfering in American elections. House lawmakers included a similar provision in their military policy bill, but the senators want to see it strengthened to slap Russia’s economy with intense sanctions if it is found to interfere in a future election.
“This conference committee represents this Congress’ best — potentially last — opportunity to enact meaningful legislation aimed at deterring Russia from a repeat performance of its 2016 presidential election interference,” the senators wrote. “We ask that you seize this opportunity and include the provisions outlined above in the final conference report.”
On Tuesday, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, signed on to a measure by Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee’s top Democrat, that would require campaign officials to report to federal authorities any offers of campaign assistance from foreign entities.
“Russia’s efforts to interfere in our elections remain relentless,” said Ms. Collins, who is also up for re-election next year, in a statement.
Mr. McConnell’s opposition to any and all election legislation has bottled up the bills in the Senate Rules Committee. The panel’s chairman, Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, has hesitated to advance any of the measures since they would go nowhere on the floor.
Mr. Blunt said he repeatedly had been assured by the F.B.I., the Department of Homeland Security and the federal intelligence agencies that they were not lacking resources to combat election interference.
“They always say, ‘No, we don’t need anything,’” Mr. Blunt said Tuesday. A former state elections official himself, Mr. Blunt said he agreed with Mr. McConnell that the federal government should not gain more authority over state elections.
“Mitch would not want to see us further federalize the process and that’s where I am, too,” Mr. Blunt said.
Proponents of the bills say they are devised to keep the states in the lead. A Democratic measure approved by the House would send more than $1 billion to state and local governments to tighten election security, but would also demand that states use the money for machines with backup paper ballots and require a national strategy to protect American democratic institutions against cyberattacks. States would be required to spend federal funds only on federally certified “election infrastructure vendors.”
A bipartisan measure in both chambers would require internet companies like Facebook to disclose the purchasers of political ads. Another bipartisan Senate proposal would codify cyberinformation-sharing initiatives between federal intelligence services and state election officials, speed up the granting of security clearances to state officials and provide federal incentives for states to adopt backup paper ballots.
Backup paper ballots got an endorsement Tuesday from an unlikely source: Mr. Trump. He took to Twitter to call for “Paper Ballots as backup (old fashioned but true!).”
We should immediately pass Voter ID @Voteridplease to insure the safety and sanctity of our voting system. Also, Paper Ballots as backup (old fashioned but true!). Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 30, 2019
With the focus on the issue intensifying, Mr. McConnell and Senate Republicans will face more pressure to act.
If they do, the most likely result would not be advancing stand-alone bills but instead using the annual spending bills that must pass this fall to funnel more money to states to secure their elections and to make certain they have a paper-ballot trail that can be audited if questions arise about the legitimacy of an outcome. Ten states now lack full capacity to do so, according to the Rules Committee.
Mr. Schumer encouraged that idea Tuesday. “If McConnell wants to address election security in the appropriations process, we would welcome his support on an amendment to send more funding to the states,” he said. “We want to get something done on election security because this is not about party, this is a matter of national security.
Mr. McConnell said Monday that he would not be intimidated into acting on election interference.
He also will probably not be answering his phone “Moscow Mitch.”
legal experts are calling Monday’s missives a newsworthy development that amounts to evidence of obstructing justice.
Trump’s first statement went out after Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney who pleaded guilty last week for lying to Congress about the president’s real estate project in Russia. In his tweet, Trump alleged that Cohen lied to Mueller and called for a severe penalty, demanding that his former fixer “serve a full and complete sentence.”
.. After the overt attack on Cohen came a tweet encouraging Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to Trump, not to become a witness against him:
.. “We’re so used to President Trump transgressing norms in his public declarations,” Eisen said, “but he may have crossed the legal line.”
.. Respected figures across party lines also responded to Trump’s tweets on the social media platform.
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) called it “serious,” adding that “the President of the United States should not be using his platform to influence potential witnesses in a federal investigation involving his campaign.”
.. Attorney George Conway, husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, referenced the federal statute most likely to create legal liability for Trump: 18 U.S.C. §§ 1512, which outlines the crime of witness tampering.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in an appearance on NBC’ News’s “Meet the Press” that Thursday’s guilty plea by Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, raises the question of whether Russia continues to have leverage over Trump.
.. “Does the Kremlin have a hold on him over other things?” Nadler said. “There certainly was leverage during the campaign period and until recently because they knew he was lying, they knew he had major business dealings or that Cohen on his behalf had major business dealings.”
.. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said Sunday that “most Republicans who were about to nominate Donald Trump in the summer of ’16 would probably have thought it was a relevant fact” that Trump was still trying to do business with Russia at the time.
.. “What I find particularly interesting with the revelation of Cohen’s plea is that he’s saying he lied to protect then-candidate Trump’s stories that he had nothing to do with Russia,”
.. “So, the president seemed to already be changing his story a little bit and say, ‘well, it was all legal.’ ”
Facebook knew about Russian interference
In fall 2016, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, was publicly declaring it a “crazy idea” that his company had played a role in deciding the election. But security experts at the company already knew otherwise.
They found signs as early as spring 2016 that Russian hackers were poking around the Facebook accounts of people linked to American presidential campaigns. Months later, they saw Russian-controlled accounts sharing information from hacked Democratic emails with reporters. Facebook accumulated evidence of Russian activity for over a year before executives opted to share what they knew with the public — and even their own board of directors.
The company feared Trump supporters
In 2015, when the presidential candidate Donald J. Trump called for a ban of Muslim immigrants, Facebook employees and outside critics called on the company to punish Mr. Trump. Mr. Zuckerberg considered it — asking subordinates whether Mr. Trump had violated the company’s rules and whether his account should be suspended or the post removed.
But while Mr. Zuckerberg was personally offended, he deferred to subordinates who warned that penalizing Mr. Trump would set off a damaging backlash among Republicans.
Mr. Trump’s post remained up.
Facebook launched a multipronged attack and lobbying campaign
As criticism grew over Facebook’s belated admissions of Russian influence, the company launched a lobbying campaign — overseen by Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer — to combat critics and shift anger toward rival tech firms.
Facebook hired Senator Mark Warner’s former chief of staff to lobby him; Ms. Sandberg personally called Senator Amy Klobuchar to complain about her criticism. The company also deployed a public relations firm to push negative stories about its political critics and cast blame on companies like Google.
Those efforts included depicting the billionaire liberal donor George Soros as the force behind a broad anti-Facebook movement, and publishing stories praising Facebook and criticizing Google and Apple on a conservative news site.
Cambridge Analytica raised the stakes
Facebook faced worldwide outrage in March after The Times, The Observer of London and The Guardian published a joint investigation into how user data had been appropriated by Cambridge Analytica to profile American voters. But inside Facebook, executives thought they could contain the damage. The company installed a new chief of American lobbying to help quell the bipartisan anger in Congress, and it quietly shelved an internal communications campaign, called “We Get It,” meant to assure employees that the company was committed to getting back on track in 2018.
Some criticisms hurt more than others
Sensing Facebook’s vulnerability, some rival tech firms in Silicon Valley sought to use the outcry to promote their own brands. After Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, quipped in an interview that his company did not traffic in personal data, Mr. Zuckerberg ordered his management team to use only Android phones. After all, he reasoned, the operating system had far more users than Apple’s.
Facebook still has friends
Washington’s senior Democrat, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, raised more money from Facebook employees than any other member of Congress during the 2016 election cycle — and he was there when the company needed him.
This past summer, as Facebook’s troubles mounted, Mr. Schumer confronted Mr. Warner, who by then had emerged as Facebook’s most insistent inquisitor in Congress. Back off, Mr. Schumer told Mr. Warner, and look for ways to work with Facebook, not vilify it. Lobbyists for Facebook — which also employs Mr. Schumer’s daughter — were kept abreast of Mr. Schumer’s efforts.
What Facebook Knew and Tried to Hide (28 min audio)
HELSINKI—President Donald Trump, standing beside Russian leader Vladimir Putin, questioned the U.S. intelligence conclusion that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election, a move lawmakers of both parties said was a stunning alignment with an adversary.
Mr. Trump said he and the Russian president “spent a great deal of time” discussing the matter during their four hours of talks here on Monday, and said Mr. Putin “was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”
Asked whom he believed—U.S. intelligence agencies or Mr. Putin—Mr. Trump said Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, “came to me [and] said, they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia.”
“I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he added.
.. Mr. Putin said they discussed the possibility of inviting Mueller investigators to Russia to question the charged officers, but added he would expect the U.S. to offer a reciprocal arrangement. Mr. Trump interjected: “I think that’s an incredible offer.”
.. The U.S. has largely ceased cooperation with Russia on pursuing cybercriminals in recent years, as the line between Kremlin-sponsored espionage and routine cybercrime has increasingly blurred in Russia, according to former U.S. officials. Names of criminal hackers shared by U.S. law enforcement with Moscow would often not be arrested but instead wind up working in close alignment with Russia’s intelligence services, turning the effort to cooperate into a recruitment tool for the Kremlin, those officials said.
.. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who often advises the Trump administration, said the president should “clarify” his remarks about the U.S. intelligence community and Mr. Putin. “It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected—-immediately,” he said in a tweet.
.. “I can’t remember a similar episode from modern American presidential history where, when standing beside the person who was our most dangerous adversary, the president continually refused to say a negative word on any subject,” said Mr. Burns, who also served as U.S. ambassador to NATO.
Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called Mr. Trump’s posture toward the Russian leader “a breach of his duty to defend our country against its adversaries.”
.. “Our relationship has never been worse than it is now,” Mr. Trump declared. “However, that changed, about four hours ago.” Hours earlier, in a tweet, Mr. Trump blamed the U.S. for the poor state of its relations with Moscow.
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account on Monday quoted that tweet and wrote: “We agree.”
Mr. Trump said: “I hold both countries responsible.”
“The United States has been foolish. We’ve all been foolish,” he said. “We have both made some mistakes.”
Fired FBI director James Comey recently asked lawmakers to help him secure more “resources” for the bureau’s counterintelligence investigation of possible connections between President Trump’s campaign team and Russian officials, sources told Fox News Wednesday.
The Justice Department repeatedly denied Wednesday that Comey had asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to bolster the Russia probe.
The sources said Comey met with Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Mark Warner, D-Va., — the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate intelligence committee — to discuss the ongoing inquiry Monday, the day before he was fired by Trump.