Dana Milbank: ‘Moscow Mitch’ McConnell’s new posture toward Russia

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., smiles after vote on a hard-won budget deal that would permit the government to resume borrowing to pay all of its obligations and would remove the prospect of a government shutdown in October, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

"Moscow Mitch" was red hot.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, on the Senate floor Monday, denounced critics (including me) who say his recent blocking of efforts to fortify defenses against another Russian attack on U.S. elections are aiding and abetting Vladimir Putin.

"For decades, I have used my Senate seat to stand up to Russia," the Kentucky Republican protested.

Unfortunately for McConnell, two days later came a reminder that he has taken a rather different posture toward Russia of late. Indeed, it appears, he has been key to helping Russian oligarchs with ties to Putin skirt U.S. sanctions and invest in an aluminum mill in McConnell's home state of Kentucky.

Citing Senate lobbying disclosures, Politico reported Wednesday that two former McConnell staffers had signed on as lobbyists for the Braidy Industries mill, which is 40 percent owned by Russian aluminum giant Rusal. That company has long been controlled by Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch who, the United States alleges, has said “he does not separate himself from the Russian state.” Braidy also hired a PR firm founded by yet another former McConnell aide, the outlet reported Friday.

It is well established in Washington that, as Politico's Anna Palmer noted in 2014, "there's little difference between the McConnell confidants who used to be on his payroll and those who still are." The article specifically cited former McConnell chief of staff Hunter Bates, who is now one of the Braidy lobbyists.

A McConnell spokesman said that the lobbyists, hired by Braidy on May 20, requested two meetings but that those were declined, and no meetings have been held "to date."

McConnell himself had championed the oligarchs' cause before. After the Trump administration last year exempted Deripaska-related enterprises from sanctions, a bipartisan rebellion attempted to reinstate the sanctions (House Republicans joined Democrats in a 362-to-53 vote), but McConnell led a successful effort in the Senate to thwart the rebellion, which he called a "political stunt."

Three months later, the Russian aluminum giant announced its $200 million investment in Kentucky. McConnell declared in May that his vote to exempt Deripaska enterprises from sanctions was "completely unrelated."

Of course.

It was also unrelated, no doubt, to the fact that Len Blavatnik, a Ukrainian American whose firm owns 22.5 percent of Rusal, contributed $3.5 million to the McConnell-affiliated Senate Leadership Fund between 2015 and 2017, making McConnell his top recipient. Blavatnik -- whose partner in the Rusal investment, Putin-allied oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, has also been hit by U.S. sanctions -- gave millions more to other Republicans and to Trump's inauguration.

Now, Russia-backed Braidy is seeking up to $1 billion from U.S. taxpayers in low-cost debt financing, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

A McConnell spokesman said the notion that McConnell helped Russian oligarchs skirt sanctions and invest in the mill is "an entirely false narrative that has zero basis in actual fact." He acknowledged that the McConnell-affiliated PAC has received contributions from Blavatnik's Access Industries and Al Altep Holdings, but he said Democrats have also received contributions from Blavatnik.

Beyond Blavatnik's contributions and Rusal's investment, McConnell's venture-capitalist brother-in-law, Jim Breyer, who has made vast political contributions to McConnell, has invested extensively with Putin-tied Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner.

McConnell was a Russia hawk for decades. But that hasn’t been so clear lately, with the Deripaska sanctions, the Russia-tied political contributions, the tepid support for investigating Russia (“case closed,” he pronounced, before the Intelligence Committee finished its investigation), and his allergy to aggressive action to protect U.S. elections.

I exaggerated last week in saying McConnell has blocked “all” election-security bills since Congress authorized $380 million for the purpose last year; senators unanimously passed, for example, relatively minor measures clarifying that hacking a voting system is a federal crime and denying entry to foreign nationals who have violated U.S. election law. But by the Trump administration’s own assessment, not enough has been done, and McConnell has resisted action on more substantive efforts. As Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in explaining why election-security bills aren’t moving: “The majority leader is of the view that this debate reaches no conclusion.”

But that's no excuse for preventing the debate from happening. If Americans don't have confidence our elections are free and fair, nothing else in our democracy has value.

McConnell is free to take any position he likes on oligarchs and Russian money. But if he wishes to shed the "Moscow Mitch" moniker, he'll stop blocking the Senate from even considering ideas to protect democratic elections.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

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