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Donald Trump has never lacked for chutzpah. The president once encouraged Russia to break into Hillary Clinton’s email server. (His press secretary, Sean Spicer, said Monday that was merely a joke.) He long decried talk of Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 election as “fake news,” and has only come to grudgingly acknowledge that Russia did indeed try to interfere. But now, in a gesture that represents the audacity of, well, audacity, Trump is now saying it was President Obama who colluded with Russia.
Forget for a minute that we know Russia was trying to aid the Trump campaign and prevent Clinton from being elected: Does Trump have a germ of a legitimate point? Should Obama have done more to sound the alarm about Russian interference? Trump seemed to get a boost for this idea over the weekend from an unlikely source: Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and an aggressive interlocutor on the Russia question.
"I think the Obama administration should have done a lot more when it became clear that not only was Russia intervening, but it was being directed at the highest levels of the Kremlin," Schiff said on CNN's State of the Union. Back in September, Schiff and Senator Dianne Feinstein, also a California Democrat and the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a joint statement saying Russian interference in the U.S. election was being directed by the “very senior levels” of the Russian government—a thinly veiled reference to President Vladimir Putin. “We call on President Putin to immediately order a halt to this activity,” Schiff and Feinstein wrote. “Americans will not stand for any foreign government trying to influence our election. We hope all Americans will stand together and reject the Russian effort.”
But from what we know, Obama not only did not collude with Russia—an idea that is ridiculous on the face of it—he handled an extremely difficult political and intelligence conundrum that would have been a challenge for any outgoing American president who learned that an adversary was working tirelessly to defeat his would be successor, in this case Hillary Clinton.
Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush: Each of these presidents who either couldn’t or wouldn’t run again would have faced a huge conundrum if they found out that Russia was aiding their hoped-for successor’s opponent. The closest this actually once came to happening was Nixon’s 1968 dealings with the North Vietnamese government to delay peace negotiations with the outgoing Johnson administration in an effort to hurt the candidacy of LBJ’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee. But neither the Humphrey campaign nor the Johnson White House knew about the collusion.
Obama was acutely aware, and rightfully so, of the simple fact that if he was too vocal about the Russian interference he would seem to be intervening in the election, using national intelligence to aid the Clinton political campaign. Given that Trump had even gone so far as to say during a nationally televised presidential debate with Clinton that he might not accept the outcome of the election—another shocking breach of standard political norms by the mogul—Obama had to be especially cautious lest he fuel Trump’s paranoid claim that the election was rigged.
Recall that in July, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention—Hillary Clinton’s big moment to project a positive message for her campaign—Wikileaks dumped 20,000 purloined documents from the Democratic National Committee. In August, the White House received a report from the CIA, according to the Post, confirming suspicions that Russia had launched a major effort to interfere with the American election.
Did Obama do nothing? Did he dismiss it as fake news and throw a tantrum? No, he behaved like a president and ordered further investigation on what Russia may or may not have done. The Russians were warned to back off. Video feed to the Situation Room was cut off to minimize the chances of leaks.
Since the CIA is just one of numerous American intelligence agencies, Obama pressed to find out if others agreed. Eventually, a stunning 17-agency consensus would emerge that Russia was trying to interfere in the American election.
At the same time, the Trump campaign was emerging as the coziest with Moscow since the Cold War began in 1945. Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort resigned following disclosures about huge payments from the pro-Moscow leadership of Ukraine. Language denouncing Russian aggression against its neighbors was excised from the Republican Party’s platform. Trump continued his friendly-to-Putin comments.
By September, while the vast web of American intelligence agencies was forging a consensus, Obama confronted Putin at an international summit in China and warned him to back off. Congressional leaders were briefed about the possibility of Russian interference. Trump himself was clued in during his national security briefings, according to the Post.
On September 22, it was Schiff and Feinstein who made the first public comments calling out Russia. And here Schiff was clear that he wanted Obama to be more outspoken. But consider Obama’s dilemma: There was still no interagency consensus and, more tricky politically, the GOP leadership in Congress wasn’t in agreement yet that Russia had interfered. Had Obama gotten out in front of the agency consensus, he would have been clobbered by Trump, the Republicans in Congress, the conservative pundit/advocacy infrastructure and probably within the government from agencies that had yet to agree with the CIA. He was wisely prudent.
On October 7, Obama had CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issue a statement calling out the Russians. He left it to the professionals rather than making himself—a political actor who was on the trail for Clinton—the face of these claims. Unfortunately for Obama and Clinton, the announcement was overshadowed by the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Donald Trump described untoward sexual intimidation of women.
For the remainder of the race, Trump would deny that Russia had anything to do with the hacking, saying during one debate that it could have been done by a “400-pound” person in a bedroom. As president, Trump is only willing to acknowledge that Russia might have been part of a hack that could have involved other countries, even though no U.S. intelligence agency has pointed to another national having joined the Russian operation.
If Obama had sounded the alarm himself earlier and more forcefully, it almost surely would have backfired and looked political. That’s a judgment call, of course. But Obama made a decision in real time under difficult circumstances. What’s Trump’s excuse for continuing to obfuscate, distort and deceive?