Every once in a while, as often as a blue moon or a politician forgoing the use of the word “frankly,” I utter a soft “Right on” in response to something President Trump has done or tweeted. This occurred recently when he took Barack Obama to task for his weak — and tardy — response to Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election. For a moment there, Trump forgot that Vladimir Putin can do no wrong.
But for that rare moment, the President was absolutely right. The Obama administration’s response to Russia meddling was ineffective and oddly torpid. It was also secretive. For the longest time, only some in the American intelligence community and a few people in the Obama White House knew what the Kremlin was up to. Most of Congress, not to mention the American people, were kept in the dark. Why? After all, it was our election.
Of course, Trump had his own harebrained take on what happened and who might have benefited. Somehow, Obama’s weak response to the Russians was supposed to benefit Hillary Clinton. If anything, Putin had become a virtual Trump volunteer, all but chanting, “Lock her up, lock her up,” in the safe space created by thick Kremlin walls. Putin had come to hate Clinton for her statements questioning the legitimacy of his own election. One does not question Putin’s legitimacy. He has that in common with Trump.
Russian meddling in the 2016 election has produced a very rare bipartisan approach to a foreign policy challenge, combining incompetence (Obama) with chaotic indifference (Trump) so that Putin has been allowed to mess with our election with close to impunity. Oh, two Russian resthouses in Maryland and Long Island were closed, some intelligence operatives operating under diplomatic cover were given the boot, and additional sanctions imposed, but mostly this caper was widely successful.
It may not be true that Russia managed to fiddle with the vote; Moscow did, however, mess with Clinton’s head, employing WikiLeaks to keep her off-balance. The Obama administration’s response to Russian meddling was entirely characteristic of a President who was respected by many but feared by few. When Obama finally approached Putin at a summit in Hangzhou, China, and reportedly told him he’d “better stop or else,” Putin essentially blew him off. He demanded proof. As Putin no doubt knew, red lines with Obama were opportunities for further study.
But Obama is no longer President. Some of the tougher penalties Obama ordered up but never used are on Trump’s desk. Yet the new President continued to dismiss the unanimous finding of the entire U.S. intelligence community that Russia meddled in the election. Trump variously called the whole thing “a hoax” and said that maybe it wasn’t the Russians but “some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
The question is, what is Trump going to do about it? And the further question is, why does the answer appear to be nothing? Can it be that he actually thinks the story was concocted by all 17 intelligence agencies? Can it be that he is somehow so indebted to Putin that his hands are tied and his mouth muzzled? And what could so compromise the President of the United States? Does he owe rubles to the Russians?
As always with Trump, the Republican Party has taken a stand on principle that it will have none. The Russians violated American sovereignty and few in the GOP protest. The man in the Oval Office appears either inhibited or so befogged by keen feelings of victimization that the U.S. — the world’s sole superpower, remember? — cannot respond to what amounts to an attack on our way of life.
There was yet another moment when I cheered Trump. That was in April when he authorized the missile strike on a Syrian air base after its military had used chemical weapons on civilians. He did what Obama had refused to do, he did it without months of study — and it was successful.
He now has the credibility that unfortunately matters in the schoolyard of international affairs — the willingness to use force. I am not suggesting that he do something similar to Russia — it is a nuclear power, after all — but I am suggesting that he do something or explain, in possibly more than 140 characters, why he will not. In the meantime, the U.S. appears weak.
C’mon, Donald, make America great again.