In recent days, President Donald Trump has adopted a fiendishly clever new line on the ongoing Russia probes: He will fully acknowledge that Russia did try to sabotage our election, but only in the context of blaming Barack Obama for it. Monday morning, Trump took this argument to a new level, testing an argument about potential Russian meddling that I had not heard before:
This is, in a sense, new. In a few tweets last week, Trump blasted the Obama administration for failing to act on what it had learned about Russia’s meddling efforts. But now Trump is explicitly offering a rationale for this, i.e., that Obama didn’t think Trump was going to win, and so didn’t bother doing anything about it, because it might have “rocked the boat,” whatever that is supposed to mean.
This line of argument leaves Trump deeply exposed, however. It represents an acknowledgement that the intelligence community had in fact concluded that Russia interfered with the purpose of helping Trump win. And it also exposes Trump to questions about what his administration (and Republicans) are prepared to do about expected Russian efforts to meddle in the next election.
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The news of the Obama administration’s failure to act in response to Russian meddling was documented in an extensive Post investigation last week. The White House had been informed as early as last August that intelligence confirmed that an extensive cyber campaign was underway to disrupt the presidential race and undermine public faith in our democracy, with the goal of helping Trump win. The Obama administration debated various responses but only went through with punitive action after the election was over, and senior officials and Democrats, rightly, are now sharply critical of the paralysis and inaction. As one former official put it: “I feel like we sort of choked.”
Due either to his megalomania or his dishonesty, or some combination of the two, Trump has regularly conflated two questions: First, the question of what Russia did to undermine our election; and second, whether the Trump campaign colluded with those efforts. Trump has regularly dismissed the latter question, of course, but this has had the effect of leading him to be unwilling to seriously grapple with the former one, as if fully acknowledging the extent of Russian meddling would be tantamount to acknowledging an attack on him (hence the megalomania-or-dishonesty question). Indeed, Trump said the claims of Russian meddling are a “big Dem HOAX” as early as last week.
But now Trump is fully acknowledging that this meddling did happen (provided he can blame Obama for it). More to the point, though, his tweets Monday morning admit that our intelligence community not only did conclude this, but also that Russia did this to help him win the election. Why would Obama’s inaction in the face of Russian sabotage be grounded in the belief (as Trump claims) that Hillary Clinton was going to win anyway, unless our intelligence officials had concluded that this sabotage was designed to benefit him against her? (That is what officials did conclude, per the report they put out in January.)
This criticism of Obama’s inaction, while certainly justifiable on the merits, opens the White House up to questions as to what he, Trump, is prepared to do about Russian sabotage next time. The intel community’s January report flatly concluded that Russia is already developing “future influence efforts” against the US, and noted that the last sabotage of our election has become a “new normal.” Former FBI director James Comey went even further in his recent testimony to Congress, claiming that Russia currently constitutes “the greatest threat of any nation on Earth” to our democratic process.
And yet, in an important segment, NBC News recently reported that the Trump administration has taken “little meaningful action to prevent Russian hacking, leaking and disruption in the next national election in 2018.” NBC reported on “an urgent warning from government officials and outside experts” that is being telegraphed to the White House that “the US may not be ready to stop Russia” from “interfering in our next election.” Experts quoted by NBC said the US needs to better coordinate with tech companies to blunt three expected Russian attacks, which reprise efforts it made last time: The spreading of fake news; the hacking of embarrassing information about candidates; and attempted cyber-attacks on election databases. Yet NBC reports: “Dozens of state officials told NBC News they have received little direction from Washington about election security.”
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The White House insisted to NBC that it is taking steps to prepare for upcoming Russian sabotage efforts. But Trump himself has shown little interest in Russian meddling. As Comey testified to Congress, he could not recall a single instance of Trump asking him how the US might better prepare for a future Russian attack. If Trump is now going to bash the Obama administration – again, justifiably on the merits – for inaction against Russian meddling, you’d think media scrutiny of the Trump administration’s own response to the next Russian sabotage effort, which our own intelligence community has warned is going to happen, will now intensify in a big way.
The Washington Post