In the wake of Friday's big Washington Post report chronicling the Obama administration's responses to the Russian interference in the presidential campaign, President Donald Trump finally admitted that it happened — sort of. He did it the only way he could that would make him feel comfortable: passing the buck. In one of his greatest acts of chutzpah yet, Trump attacked Barack Obama for failing to stop the Russian government from helping him win the election.
Then he seemed lose himself for a moment and just tweeted out in all caps, "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"
It's tempting to think this was all just Trump needing to vent on Twitter (not that that's an acceptable practice for the president of the United States), but it now appears to be the official White House strategy. Kellyanne Conway echoed this line on Sunday morning:
It's the Obama administration that was responsible for doing absolutely nothing from August to January with the knowledge that Russia was hacking into our election. They did absolutely nothing. They're responsible for this. . . . I have a hacking question for the Obama administration: Why did you, quote, choke, in the name of one of their senior administration officials? Why did you do nothing? Why didn't you inform candidate Trump?
Trump himself went on Fox News and said, “Well, I just heard today for the first time that Obama knew about Russia a long time before the election, and he did nothing about it. The CIA gave him information on Russia a long time before the election. . . . If he had the information, why didn't he do something about it? He should have done something about it. But you don’t read that. It’s quite sad.”
That's crazy talk. He just heard it that day for the first time? The whole world knew about it on June 14, 2016, when The Washington Post first reported that Russian agents had apparently hacked the Democratic National Committee's computer network. And Donald Trump certainly knew about it at least as early as July 27 of last year, when he said, "They hacked — they probably have her 33,000 emails. I hope they do. Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing."
In the presidential debate in September, Trump memorably responded to Hillary Clinton's assertion that the Russians had interfered by saying, "I don't think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She's saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don't — maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?"
As for Conway's obnoxious question about why the Obama administration didn't inform candidate Trump, well it did. After that contentious debate exchange NBC News reported this:
During Sunday’s debate, Donald Trump once again said he doesn’t know whether Russia is trying to hack the U.S. election, despite Friday’s statement by the U.S. intelligence community pointing the finger at Putin — and despite the fact that Trump was personally briefed on Russia’s role in the hacks by U.S. officials.
A senior U.S. intelligence official assured NBC News that cybersecurity and the Russian government’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election have been briefed to, and discussed extensively with, both parties’ candidates, surrogates and leadership, since mid-August. "To profess not to know at this point is willful misrepresentation,” said the official. “The intelligence community has walked a very thin line in not taking sides, but both candidates have all the information they need to be crystal clear."
Trump's rejection of this information has continued for months with tweets about the Russia scandal like this:
“A total scam!”
All those statements were made since Trump became president. Who is supposedly withholding information from him? Is he withholding it from himself? And his persistent unwillingness to criticize President Vladimir Putin or even admit that election interference happened has created an overwhelming suspicion that he's hiding something.
None of this is to say that President Obama and his administration made the right decision by not taking action earlier. The Washington Post article is fairly damning on that count. As Julia Ioffe observed in an article in the Atlantic, it might have made a difference in another way if the administration had done before the election what it did afterward:
When Obama did make the attack public, the amount of panic and political dust kicked up by the release of the intelligence report in January, along with the congressional investigations it triggered, proved debilitating for Russian ambitions. The Russians lost their main ally in the White House, Michael Flynn, who was pushing President Trump to unilaterally lift Russia sanctions.
It's doubtful that alone would have altered the outcome of the election. We know that the Republican leadership was happy to get help from the Russian government and would have dismissed any public actions by the Obama administration as dirty partisan pool. But it's possible that it might have made the Russians pull back from the brink and think better of making such an audacious move.
It's likely that Obama officials thought that Hillary Clinton was a lock, and that they could deal with the whole situation properly after the election. That was bad judgment. They should have known that in a year in which the Republican Party had 17 (mostly) qualified candidates and wound up nominating Donald Trump, anything could happen.
Blaming Obama for the Russian hacking will probably convince most of Trump's voters that he's off the hook. They'll believe anything. But that won't solve his problems. Thanks to his own clumsy and self-destructive attempts to get the investigation into Russian interference quashed, the president is now the subject of a criminal inquiry. Repeatedly tweeting, "I know you are but what am I" will do nothing to change that.