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Obama's chief of staff: Mitch McConnell to blame for 'watered down' reaction to Russian election meddling

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Denis McDonough, Obama's chief of staff throughout his second term, said that Mitch McConnell was the reason why the administration couldn't do more to counteract the Russians late in the election. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Former President Barack Obama’s chief of staff puts the blame for the administration’s “watered down” response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election at the feet of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff throughout his second term, said on NBC’s “Meet The Press” Sunday that McConnell was the reason why the administration couldn’t do more to counteract the Russians late in the election.

“The president [Obama] asked the four leaders in a bipartisan meeting in the Oval Office to join him and ask the states to work with us on this question,” McDonough said, referring to Speaker Paul Ryan, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and McConnell.

“It took us three weeks to get that statement worked out and it was watered down.”

“And it was watered down on the insistence of Mitch McConnell?” asked host Chuck Todd.

“Yes,” McDonough answered.

“And no one else?” Todd asked.

“Yes,” McDonough replied again.

“Do you have any understanding as to why?” Todd said.

“I don’t,” McDonough answered.

The former chief of staff said there was also evidence some people in Congress did not take the threat to the American electoral system seriously.

“The intelligence community approached the entire leadership of Congress in early August 2016. What I know is several members did not take the briefing until early September 2016.”

McDonough said the Obama administration handled the situation as well as it could, given the divisive atmosphere of the 2016 campaign.

He said Obama’s call to Putin warning him to stop interfering in the election helped stop the Kremlin from taking some steps American officials though they might take. He said Americans didn’t see the worst of what Russia could have done during the 2016 election, largely due to Obama’s actions.

He added that it was a tough situation because any direct statements by Obama would have been seen as tipping the election toward Hillary Clinton, who he had endorsed and for whom he was campaigning.

“We feared that if it looked like the president was involved that this was a partisan matte,” he said. “At the time we were in the middle of the campaign, the president had a view in the campaign. We wanted to make sure that partisan politics did not color state officials' reaction to the information.”