‘Moscow Mitch’ Tag Enrages McConnell and Squeezes G.O.P. on Election Security

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!).”

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.”

Show How You Feel, Kavanaugh Was Told, and a Nomination Was Saved

When White House aides raised the issue with Judge Kavanaugh, he adamantly denied it and told them he did not even remember her.

.. They did what had never been done in a Supreme Court confirmation and put him on television to be interviewed, choosing Mr. Trump’s favorite network, Fox News.

Judge Kavanaugh, joined by his wife, seemed flat and mechanical as he retreated to the same talking points denying the allegations. Mr. Trump, who styles himself a master of television, thought his nominee came across as weak. Getting the clip of him denying the charges into the media spin cycle was important, but it was not enough.

.. The tide seemed to turn, oddly enough, when a third woman emerged with even more extreme allegations. Michael Avenatti, a brash and media savvy California lawyer who has been careening from one Trump administration brush fire to another, produced a statement from a woman alleging that Judge Kavanaugh in high school attended parties where women were gang raped. The woman, Julie Swetnick, said she was herself gang raped at one such party, though not by the judge.

Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, rushed to the floor to insist that “Judge Kavanaugh should withdraw from consideration.”

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a key swing Republican, was so troubled that she took a copy of Ms. Swetnick’s statement, highlighted and marked up, to a meeting of Republican committee chairmen. Senator John Cornyn of Texas went through it point by point with her to debunk it.

.. The Republican senators got into a lengthy conversation about Mr. Avenatti and how he could not be trusted and concluded that Ms. Swetnick’s claims did not add up. Why would she as a college student repeatedly go to high school parties where young women were gang raped? No one came forward to corroborate the allegation, and news reports surfaced about past lawsuits in which Ms. Swetnick’s truthfulness was questioned.

“This was a turning point,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “That allegation was so over the top, it created a moment that was scary, quite frankly. But that moment was quickly replaced by disgust.

The involvement of Mr. Avenatti, who represents Stephanie Clifford, the former porn star known as Stormy Daniels, particularly galvanized Republicans, reinforcing the idea that the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh were a political setup. One Republican congressional official called Mr. Avenatti’s involvement “manna from heaven.” From the other side, a Democratic congressional official called it “massively unhelpful.”

the notion that Mr. Avenatti tipped the scale was “wishful thinking” by Republicans who were bent on confirming Judge Kavanaugh at all costs.

.. credited Ms. Swetnick’s story with forcing Republicans to request an abbreviated F.B.I. investigation. “If it would have just been Dr. Ford,” he said, “I don’t think the investigation takes place.”

.. But Judge Kavanaugh’s angry outburst rallied Republicans. He went so far in expressing rage that he blamed the allegations on a plot to take “revenge on behalf of the Clintons” and he sharply challenged two of the Democratic senators about their own drinking.

During a break, Mr. McGahn told him he had to dial it back and strike a calmer tone. When he returned to the committee room, Judge Kavanaugh moderated his anger and apologized to one of the senators.

.. When Mr. Durbin asked Judge Kavanaugh to turn around and ask Mr. McGahn to request an F.B.I. investigation into the charges against him, Mr. Graham erupted in a ferocious, finger-wagging lecture. Other Republican senators began channeling their inner Trump and lashing out on Judge Kavanaugh’s behalf as well.

.. Ms. Collins said she would find it hard to vote yes without a sworn statement from Judge Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge denying that he saw what Dr. Blasey described.

.. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Judiciary chairman, got a fresh statement from Mr. Judge within three hours to satisfy her.

.. the three joined other Republican senators in Mr. McConnell’s office to discuss what the F.B.I. investigation should look like. The three undecided Republicans settled on four people they wanted to hear from

Ms. Ramirez, Mr. Judge and two others identified by Dr. Blasey as being elsewhere in the house at the time she was allegedly assaulted.

.. That night Mr. Graham went to dinner at Cafe Berlin with Ms. Collins, Mr. Flake and Ms. Murkowski. They discussed whether a limited F.B.I. investigation might assuage them.

The list of four witnesses they selected, however, later struck Democrats as so constrained that they demanded a more expansive investigation. In the end, the F.B.I. interviewed 10 people, but not many others Democrats recommended.

.. Ms. Murkowski was struggling with what to do. She asked the committee staff to question Judge Kavanaugh’s friends about their understanding of terms from his yearbook like “boofing” and “Devil’s Triangle” to see if they matched his.

.. “The tactics that were used completely backfired,” said Mr. McConnell. “Harassing members at their homes, crowding the halls with people acting horribly, the effort to humiliate us really helped me unify my conference. So I want to thank these clowns for all the help they provided.”

.. Less helpful may have been Mr. Trump’s decision to mock Dr. Blasey during a rally in Mississippi

.. White House aides insisted that the president’s outburst fortified Republicans.

.. Trump and other Republicans accused sex-crime victims protesting Kavanaugh as protesters paid by George Soros
.. The GOP Senate whip, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), called the victims a “mob” and echoed the bogus claim that they were paid protesters. They deny victims’ very existence; they are non-persons — props sent by opponents to ruin a man’s life.
.. Graham snorted that he’d hear what “the lady has to say” and then vote Kavanaugh in.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he’d “plow right through” (more like plow over) Ford’s testimony and confirm Kavanaugh.

Republicans’ defense of Kavanaugh — that Ford and others were props of a left-wing plot and therefore lacked agency of their own — evidences the party’s attitude toward women.

.. You cannot say a party that embraces a deeply misogynistic president who bragged about sexually assaulting women and mocked and taunted a sex-crime victim; accepted a blatantly insufficient investigation of credible sex crimes against women in lieu of a serious one that the White House counsel knew would be disastrous; repeatedly insulted and dismissed sex-crime victims exercising their constitutional rights; has never put a single woman on the Judiciary Committee (and then blames its own female members for being too lazy); and whips up male resentment of female accusers is a party that respects women.

.. What’s worse is that Republicans who would never engage in this cruel and demeaning behavior themselves don’t bat an eye when their party’s leaders do so. Acceptance of Trump’s misogyny — like their rationalization of the president’s overt racism — becomes a necessity for loyal Republicans.

..  One either agrees or ignores or rationalizes such conduct, or one decide it’s a small price to pay (“it” being the humiliation of women) for tax cuts and judges. It’s just words, you know.

.. The Republican Party no longer bothers to conceal its loathing of immigrants, its contempt for a free press, its disdain for the rule of law or its views on women. Indeed, these things now define a party that survives by inflaming white male resentment. Without women to kick around, how would they get their judge on the court or their guys to the polls?

Who Will Pay for the Mess of the Kavanaugh Confirmation? All the Women.

The lawmaker who is likely to lose the most in this mess is Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, a red-state Democrat in a tough re-election race against Representative Kevin Cramer, who suggested that he’d vote for Justice Kavanaugh even if he had sexually assaulted Dr. Blasey.

.. Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, became a target of social media scorn when The Guardian reported she told students that it was “not an accident” that Kavanaugh’s clerks “looked like models.” But that didn’t really spur a close look at Justice Kavanaugh’s hiring practices. Instead, Ms. Chua bore the brunt of the firestorm.

.. Ms. Chua and Lisa Blatt, a feminist attorney, have faced enormous pressure to denounce him, with reputational consequences that their male counterparts are unlikely to face.

.. A bigger man than Justice Kavanaugh would have apologized to Renate Schroeder Dolphin for turning her into a high school joke.

A more responsible Senate Judiciary Committee would have taken their claims seriously and demanded a thorough, fair investigation.

And all of us could direct the same energy and opprobrium that we level at moderate women at the men who prejudged the outcome of this process and proceeded accordingly.