WASHINGTON – Former White House chief of staff Denis McDonough on Sunday defended the Obama administration’s response to suspected Russian interference in the 2016 election, rebuffing the continued criticism former President Barack Obama has sustained on the issue.
“We took a series of painstaking steps, including the President directly confronting President Putin,” McDonough said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
McDonough said in addition to Obama confronting Putin about the attempts to interfere in the election, the administration pressed Congress on the issue and released a statement from the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence ahead of the election pointing to Russia’s ongoing efforts to sow discord.
“We did exactly what we think we needed to do,” McDonough said.
McDonough claimed that Obama’s discussion with Putin may have prevented further Russian actions, including attempts to affect the sanctity of the elections.
Special counsel Robert Mueller indicted several Russians last month on charges related to allegations they spread misinformation online in a campaign that began well ahead of the general election.
McDonough’s defense of the former administration’s actions in response to intelligence pointing to a Russian operation to skew the presidential election came in response to criticism that Obama could have done more to counter the effort.
President Donald Trump tweeted last month that Obama did not act in the face of Russian meddling, and Obama has faced criticism within his own party for his handling of the issue. California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff said last year that Obama should have sounded the alarm to a greater extent.
McDonough said given the information they had at the time, they “made a series of very important and very good decisions,” and he rejected the claim from a former administration official in a Washington Post article last year that they “sort of choked.”
In Sunday’s interview, McDonough also blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for what he called a “dramatically watered down” joint statement on election security in September 2016.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said in response that he would “let McDonough respond to McDonough” and pointed to an op-ed McDonough wrote last year that referenced the statement.
McDonough wrote: “This joint, bipartisan statement was thought by the White House to be particularly important since state and local authorities had been reluctant to accept the assistance being offered by the Department of Homeland Security, and we believed a bipartisan statement would help persuade them to put aside their concerns and work with the federal government to protect our election infrastructure.
“This bipartisan outreach was harder and more time-consuming than it needed to be, but it was ultimately successful, with a statement released by the four congressional leaders on Sept. 29,” he continued. “By Election Day, 33 states and 36 counties and cities had used Homeland Security tools to scan or strengthen their systems.”