After spending months largely denying Russian attacks on the U.S. political system as “fake news,” President Donald Trump and his allies have adopted a new tactic: Finally and firmly decrying them … as an artifact of the Obama administration, and the Obama administration alone.
This set of talking points is not only self-serving revisionist history, but also it’s also a dangerous posture to have going forward given the fact that this interference is ongoing and only figures to worsen.
This wasn’t the first time the administration trotted out this wholly spurious line of argument. “If all of the Russian meddling took place during the Obama Administration, right up to January 20th, why aren’t they the subject of investigation?” Trump tweeted last week, raising the disturbing notion of prosecuting a predecessor’s administration for unnamed (and, almost certainly, imaginary) crimes. The day before, Sanders had admonished the press regarding the political meddling to “not forget that this happened under the Obama administration.”
To be sure, as I have written previously (see here and here), there are legitimate criticisms to be leveled at President Barack Obama and his team over its handling of the Russian cyberassault (though no one credible has suggested criminality).
Cartoons on President Trump and Russia
But laying all of the blame for the 2016 Russian attacks and the insufficient U.S. handling thereof at Obama’s feet leaves out important context of what happened that fall – to the benefit of Trump’s partisan allies, not surprisingly. Team Trump’s criticisms inevitably leave out the fact that Obama and the intelligence community wanted to make a stronger statement about Russian interference during the campaign but that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., threatened to denounce any such effort as partisan politics.
More important going forward, however, is the idea that somehow the Russian attacks stopped on Jan. 20, 2017.
This flies in the face of public pronouncements from Trump’s own national security team. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this month said that Russia is already meddling in our elections; the following week the intelligence community chiefs told the Senate Intelligence Committee the same. “Frankly, the United States is under attack,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said at the time.
Adm. Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, echoed the warning again Tuesday, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee the Russians are bound to continue because the U.S. government has not done enough to deter them. “Everything, both as the director of NSA and what I see on the Cyber Command side, leads me to believe that if we don’t change the dynamic here, this is going to continue and 2016 won’t be viewed as something isolated,” Rogers said. “This is something that will be sustained over time.” He added: “Clearly, what we’ve done hasn’t been enough.”
Sanders’ comments Tuesday came in response to questions about Rogers’ testimony that Trump hasn’t even ordered him to work to disrupt Russian cyberattacks at their source.
Experts who track Russian influence activity on social media say that they saw a clear uptick in recent weeks, specifically around the #ReleaseTheMemo push. “The activity around this hashtag was different in that it was much more concentrated, amplified and extended,” New Knowledge’s Jonathon Morgan told Politico. “I think it’s a good case study in what it looks like when somebody really turns on the machine.” Hell, after the Parkland, Florida school shooting, the Russian bots dove right in to stir up division and dissension.
So no, “all of the meddling” did not take place under the Obama administration. And as Rogers said, our government has given Russian President Vladimir Putin every reason not only to continue these operations but ramp them up.
What’s Trump up to? First, obviously, he’s looking to blame Obama, as he tends to do. But consigning Russian hacking to Obama’s term also allows him to decry it (having been forced to do so by special counsel Robert Mueller’s recent indictments) while simultaneously continuing to diminish and dismiss it. And that’s a dereliction of his duty as president because he’s suggesting that the threat is passed when in fact it is ongoing. At a time when a competent leader would be educating and/or rallying the nation about a foreign government trying to interfere in our politics and our society, or at least instructing people like Rogers to do everything they can to stop it, Trump is essentially saying: Nothing to see here, move along.
That’s a problem because, incredibly, a nontrivial section of the country believes him; they believed hacking was fake news and are now content to believe that current hacking is fake news. It’s hard for the country to defend itself if we can’t even agree that there’s a threat.
And it raises what The Atlantic’s David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, recently called “a bigger and darker question. … To what extent does President Trump — to what extent do congressional Republicans — look to Russian interference to help their party in the 2018 cycle?” As Frum noted, 15 months of inaction has “left the 2018 elections as vulnerable as the 2016 elections to Russian intervention on his behalf. … [So] you have to wonder whether the president does not privately welcome that help, as he publicly welcomed help from WikiLeaks in the summer of 2016.”
Sanders argued Tuesday that the administration is working both internally and with its allies to ward off further Russian aggression, but the blame Obama posture and the lack of more direct action tells another story. Maybe there are other explanations for why Trump wants to ignore an ongoing assault upon our political system and our society. Or maybe he wants to have his hacking and condemn it too.