Fewer than two months ago, on May 10, 2017, President Trump invited two Russian diplomats into the White House to celebrate his firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Having boasted on national TV that he’d removed Comey as a means of relieving pressure from the “fake news” investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Trump greeted Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak like old friends.
Although US news media weren’t allowed into the Oval Office, the Russian news agency TASS published photos of the three men smiling broadly, backslapping, and shaking hands. That’s how American reporters learned of the controversial Kislyak’s presence. The White House neglected to mention it, presumably because his clandestine talks with fired National Security Director Michael Flynn lay at the heart of the FBI probe.
Lavrov even made heavy-handed jokes about Russian meddling, expressing mock surprise at Comey’s firing and observing sarcastically that it must be “humiliating for the American people to realize the Russian Federation is controlling the situation in the United States.”
The episode struck me at the time as an astonishing gesture of contempt, if completely in keeping with Trump’s furious denials that Russian skullduggery had anything to do with his election. In her Salon column, Heather Digby Parton compiled a short list of the president’s twitter posts on the subject. According to Trump, the FBI investigation has been dismissed as a “Witch Hunt!,” a “a total hoax,” “an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election” and so on. We’ve all heard it 50 times.
If he’s been consistent about nothing else, Trump’s been consistent about that: Vladimir Putin’s spies had no role whatsoever in his mighty victory.
That is, until last week.
Following the publication of a highly-detailed, blockbuster Washington Post story about what the Obama administration knew about “President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement” in the conspiracy to damage Hillary Clinton and make him president, Trump came up with a whole new response: Yes, Russian cyber hackers and spies interfered directly in an American presidential election: but it was all Barack Obama’s fault.
“Just out,” the president tweeted, “The Obama Administration knew far in advance of November 8th about election meddling by Russia. Did nothing about it. WHY?”
Trump soon came up with an answer: “The reason that President Obama did NOTHING about Russia after being notified by the CIA of meddling is that he expected Clinton would win.. and did not want to ‘rock the boat. He didn’t ‘choke,’ he colluded or obstructed, and it did the Dems and Crooked Hillary no good.”
If almost hysterically false—the Obama administration made repeated attempts to inform the voting public about Russian interference, most explicitly, as bad luck would have it, on October 8, 2016, the day Trump’s boasts about grabbing women’s genitals first aired—but there’s a half-truth in his tweet, too.
It says here that President Obama did, indeed, “choke,” as one anonymous administration official told Post reporters, and we’re all paying the price.
As happened more than once during his presidency, Obama appears to have over-thought the situation to the point of paralysis—pursing the will-‘o-the-wisp of patriotic bipartisanship long after it had become obvious that not only Trump, but key Republican leaders, had long since put party above country.
Could anybody be surprised that Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), for example, would stonewall any effort to inform voters that a hostile foreign power was brazenly taking Trump’s side in the election?
In effect, congressional Republicans had chosen Putin over Hillary Clinton. By August, let us recall, Trump himself was not only openly urging Russian hackers to search for Clinton’s emails—barefaced collusion—but predicting that the election was going to be rigged against him.
Obama could have done in August what he did after the election in December: hit Russia with sanctions and expelled Russian diplomats. But he reportedly feared that without GOP support, any vigorous action could easily backfire.
“Obama’s approach,” sources told the Post, “often seemed reducible to a single imperative: Don’t make things worse. As brazen as the Russian attacks on the election seemed, Obama and his top advisers feared that things could get far worse.”
“They were concerned that any pre-election response could provoke an escalation from Putin. Moscow’s meddling to that point was seen as…unlikely to materially affect the outcome of the election. Far more worrisome to the Obama team was the prospect of a cyber-assault on voting systems before and on Election Day.”
Supposedly, no vote rigging happened after Obama warned Putin to his face that dire consequences would follow.
Or at least so we’re told.
Instead, Kislyak and Lavrov yukking it up in the Oval Office happened.
This happened too: Obama presided over a political Pearl Harbor—an unprovoked assault on American democracy, and with no compelling reason to believe that it won’t happen again.
IMAGE: Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama at World Climate Change Conference 2015 in Le Bourget, near Paris/ REUTERS