This morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the Obama administration’s announcement yesterday that the United States will undertake sweeping retaliation against Russia for its alleged interference in our election. In a surprise, Putin said he would not be expelling U.S. diplomats as part of the escalating tensions.
This led to some speculation that Putin is simply biding his time until Donald Trump takes over as president, putting someone more friendly to Putin and Russia in the White House — hopefully meaning all those bad feelings about possible Russian efforts to tip the election to Trump can be forgotten. Trump, too, has been saying we need to “move on.”
But how much longer can Trump really sustain his dismissive, nonchalant posture towards Russia’s alleged assault on our democracy?
Consider the buffoonishly weak response of two of his top advisers to the news of the last 24 hours. Yesterday, the Obama administration slapped new sanctions and other penalties on Russia over its possible interference, moves that The Post characterized as “the most far-reaching U.S. response to Russian activities since the end of the Cold War.”
This prompted senior Trump transition adviser Kellyanne Conway to go on CNN and argue that Obama’s measures were designed to “box in” the Trump administration by forcing them to make a tough choice later on whether to continue those retaliatory measures (which Putin seems to be betting against happening). Conway added that Obama might be playing “politics” and argued that he was imperiling the peaceful transfer of presidential power.
It is probably true that the Obama administration is trying to “box in” Trump on this matter. But how is this notion helpful to Trump? All it really means is that Obama is trying to get Trump to take the allegations of Russian interference into our election seriously, which he does not want to do. In arguing that Obama is playing politics and might be imperiling a smooth transition, Conway implicitly admitted that the Trump camp does not see the possibility of Russian interference in our election as something the two parties should be united against. This only makes Trump’s position look more absurdly nonchalant.
Meanwhile, incoming White House spokesman Sean Spicer haplessly tried to argue that the real story here is that Democrats allowed Russian hackers to breach their emails:
“Nobody by any way or shape is suggesting that that’s acceptable behavior,” Spicer said. “But I don’t believe once I’ve ever seen an interview where anyone at the DNC was ever asked a question about whether they take any responsibility for what clearly appears to be a lax effort on them to protect their own networks.”
Translation: Sure, I’ll pay lip service to the idea that what Russia may have done is bad, but it’s really the fault of Democrats for allowing it to happen.
All of this comes across as exactly what it is: Nothing more than a continued effort to downplay the seriousness of the charges of Russian interference. That’s the posture the Trump camp is stuck in right now, due to the decision from the guy at the top to continue waving away this story as if it doesn’t matter.
But time is not on the Trump camp’s side here. For one thing, note that Trump has now agreed to sit for an intelligence briefing on the evidence of Russian interference, which itself shows he now recognizes the need to pretend to want to be informed of the facts about this matter.
For another, the intelligence community is set to release a report in early January documenting that evidence. While much of that report may remain classified, Obama recently said the intel he has seen gives him “great confidence” of Russian culpability, and some information will likely be presented to the public. The Trump camp will have to respond to that, too, and claiming it is “partisan” might look even more ridiculous, given that the source is the intelligence services.
To be clear, we should show appropriate skepticism towards the charges of Russian interference — they are not proven — and we should cast a critical eye on the intel community’s findings once they are made public. But Trump isn’t showing natural skepticism. He’s being snidely dismissive, a stance that is made worse by the fact that Russia’s efforts may have been intended to help him in a campaign that featured him repeatedly praising Putin.
Making this posture even harder to sustain, it is likely that many congressional Republicans will take the intel community’s findings increasingly seriously. CNN’s Jake Tapper conducted a great interview with Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) that previews what’s to come: In it, Kinzinger flatly stated that he “can’t defend” Trump’s refusal to treat this seriously, and noted that this is not about “questioning the legitimacy of Donald Trump.” Kinzinger added: “We can try to have a better relationship with Russia, but we also have to defend ourselves.” In other words, this House Republican effortlessly made mince meat of the Trump camp’s main lines of spin.
House and Senate GOP leaders will likely try to limit and control the extent of the congressional probes into Russian interference that they have promised. But comments like these from Kinzinger suggest that some Republicans will continue pushing for a fuller accounting. While some of the Republicans demanding this — such as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham — will be motivated by over-the-top hawkishness towards Russia, that may have the salutary effect of making it tougher for GOP leaders to duck a full, independent probe. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll see more leaks from the intel community that make their foot-dragging still harder.
Finally, there are upcoming Senate confirmation hearings. The two retired generals Trump has chosen — James Mattis as defense secretary and John Kelly as the head of homeland security — will undoubtedly be questioned about Russian interference. They will almost certainly treat the topic very seriously, making the Trump camp’s current posture even harder to sustain. The facts flushed out into the open during hearings into Putin-connected Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick as secretary of state, won’t help matters, either.
We don’t know what the facts will ultimately tell us about what really happened here. But if they do lead where they appear to be leading, Trump won’t be able to outrun them forever.