Joe Biden said Tuesday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stopped the Obama administration from speaking out about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign by refusing to sign on to a bipartisan statement of condemnation.
That moment, the former Democratic vice president said, made him think “the die had been cast … this was all about the political play.”
He expressed regret, in hindsight, given the intelligence he says came in after Election Day. “Had we known what we knew three weeks later, we may have done something more,” Biden, a potential 2020 presidential candidate, said.
Biden was speaking at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, a block from his old office at the Old Executive Office Building, to discuss his new article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin.”
Biden said he and former President Barack Obama worried that without a united front of bipartisanship, speaking out before the election would undermine the legitimacy of the election and American institutions in a way that would play into the Russians’ larger ambitions.
“Can you imagine if the president called a press conference in October, with this fella, Bannon, and company, and said, ‘Tell you what: Russians are trying to interfere in our elections and we have to do something about it,’” Biden said. “What do you think would have happened? Would things have gotten better, or would it further look like we were trying to delegitimize the electoral process, because of our opponent?”
McConnell’s office disputed this account, pointing to a letter signed by all four congressional leaders in September 2016 and sent to the president of the National Association of State Election Directors, urging cybersecurity precautions in light of reports of attempted hacking.
That missive, however, did not address Russia specifically, or the larger topic of influence beyond voting systems.
“The Obama administration requested that the Congressional leaders send this letter and they all did. It’s publicly available on the Internet for all to see,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell.
But a former Obama White House official on Tuesday afternoon echoed Biden’s frustration with the Senate majority leader, pointing to the way Obama’s White House chief of staff Denis McDonough described the dispute in an op-ed last summer.
“Our administration’s interest in making sure the response was bipartisan wasn’t for the sake of being bipartisan. It was necessary because we needed the buy-in from state and local election administrators (many of whom were Republican partisans and/or skeptical of federal government),” the official argued in an email. “Unfortunately, as is well documented, Senator McConnell was unwilling to help — only making matters worse.”
Biden told Tuesday’s gathering that there was a “constant tightrope,” with the Obama administration unable to decide what would count as saying too little or too much.
“The president and I would sit there literally after the [presidential daily briefing], after everyone had left the room, and say, ‘What the hell are we going to do?’” Biden recalled.
The Trump administration, Biden said, isn’t doing much to counter Russian interference in elections and other disruptive activity around the world. He accused the current administration of “abdicating” its responsibility in that regard and squandering its power as a result.
Biden told Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass that he wouldn’t call the current conflict with Russia a second Cold War, because it’s not a great ideological battle. Rather, Biden said, it’s “just basically about a kleptocracy protecting itself.” Figuring out how to make that case, he added, had led to an internal debate within the Obama administration about whether to make public their estimate of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s self-worth, which Biden suggested would make clear he’d benefited massively from corruption. He said he’d been pushing to do so.
Confused and frustrated foreign leaders around the world have continued to turn to him over the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, Biden said, and he continues to take the calls.
“The questions across the board range from, ‘What the hell’s going on, Joe?’” he said, “to ‘What advice do you have for me?’”