Opinion writer
The Washington Post's national security reporters unveil the deep divisions inside the Obama White House over how to respond to Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election. (Whitney Leaming,Osman Malik/The Washington Post)

Today, Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous have a blockbuster behind-the-scenes story about how the Obama administration handled the Russian effort to manipulate the 2016 presidential election, one that is both shocking and maddening. Reading it, one can’t avoid the conclusion that if it had happened during a Republican administration, things would have gone very differently.

What comes through again and again is that the Obama administration was terrified of looking partisan or doing anything that might seem like it was putting a thumb on the scale of the election, and the result was paralysis. This is a manifestation of what some years ago I began calling the Audacity Gap.

Democrats are forever worried about whether they might be criticized, whether Republicans will be mean to them, whether they might look as though they’re being partisan, and whether they might be subjected to a round of stern editorials. Republicans, on the other hand, just don’t care. What they’re worried about is winning, and they don’t let the kinds of criticism that frightens Democrats impede them. It makes Republicans the party of “Yes we can,” while Democrats are the party of “Maybe we shouldn’t.”

So as the full scope of the Russian assault on the American election became clear, two things happened again and again. First, whenever the Obama administration would approach Republicans to try to issue some kind of bipartisan condemnation or coordinate efforts to minimize the effects of the attack, the GOP response was essentially, “To hell with you, Democrats,” after which the administration would slink back and do little or nothing. And second, even when they were deliberating on their own, the administration kept pulling back from responses it might take out of fear that someone might call them partisan.

Let’s remember that the scope of Russian interference came into focus last summer. In June, it first became public that the Russians had infiltrated the systems of the Democratic National Committee. In July, during the Democratic convention, Wikileaks released internal DNC emails and those of John Podesta, who was chairing Hillary Clinton’s campaign, in an attempt to embarrass them and sow division within the Democratic Party (which turned out to be highly successful). In August, the intelligence services determined that there was a coordinated attack underway and that it was likely being directed by Vladimir Putin himself.

Apart from the creation and dissemination of a flood of phony anti-Clinton propaganda, administration officials were concerned that Russian hackers might try to directly affect voting systems, which we later learned they did in fact do. But when Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson attempted to do something about it, he got a partisan reaction:

On Aug. 15, Johnson arranged a conference call with dozens of state officials, hoping to enlist their support [for shoring up the security of their systems]. He ran into a wall of resistance.

The reaction “ranged from neutral to negative,” Johnson said in congressional testimony Wednesday.

Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state of Georgia, used the call to denounce Johnson’s proposal as an assault on state rights. “I think it was a politically calculated move by the previous administration,” Kemp said in a recent interview, adding that he remains unconvinced that Russia waged a campaign to disrupt the 2016 race. “I don’t necessarily believe that,” he said.

The same thing happened from Republicans in Congress: The administration sought a bipartisan response, and Republicans shut it down.

In early September, Johnson, [FBI Director] James Comey and [White House homeland security adviser Lisa] Monaco arrived on Capitol Hill in a caravan of black SUVs for a meeting with 12 key members of Congress, including the leadership of both parties.

The meeting devolved into a partisan squabble.

“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

And as Miller, Nakashima and Entous reported in a previous article, the always-shrewd McConnell knew exactly what button he had to push to get the administration to back off:

According to several officials, McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.

In other words, Republicans acted like partisans, and successfully rolled over Democrats who didn’t want to seem like partisans. Within weeks, the administration decided not to take any action against Moscow before the election. “They feared that any action would be seen as political and that Putin, motivated by a seething resentment of Clinton, was prepared to go beyond fake news and email dumps.”

Now let’s fast-forward to after the election is over. Perhaps the most head-spinning part of this report concerns a proposal to form a bipartisan commission to investigate Russian interference in the election:

But as soon as [White House chief of staff Denis] McDonough introduced the proposal for a commission, he began criticizing it, arguing that it would be perceived as partisan and almost certainly blocked by Congress.

Obama then echoed McDonough’s critique, effectively killing any chance that a Russia commission would be formed.

The election was already over, and they were still worried that something as obviously necessary as a bipartisan commission would be “perceived as partisan.” Savor that one for a moment.

There are some excuses you can come up with for the Obama administration’s hesitance to act decisively against this threat, both in terms of publicizing it and in retaliating against Russia. It was concerned about setting off an escalating conflict with Russia, and its actions were colored by its assumption that Clinton would win, which was of course the assumption held by nearly everyone, Republican or Democrat. But imagine what would have happened if there were a Republican administration in office, and Russia mounted a full-scale assault on our election with the obvious intent of hamstringing the future Republican president (at a minimum) or getting the Democrat elected. Could anyone who knows anything about today’s GOP actually believe it would have been so tentative?

Not on your life. Every Republican in Washington from the president on down would have been on TV every day saying that the Democratic nominee was a Russian stooge. They would have undertaken a comprehensive package of retaliatory measures immediately, not waiting until after the election was over. They would have talked about nothing else for months.

That’s not because they would have seen it as a profound threat to American sovereignty. We know that, because they don’t care about that threat right now, as real as it is. Heck, the Republican nominee for president not only didn’t condemn the Russian assault, he celebrated it. Donald Trump gleefully brought up Wikileaks 164 times on the campaign trail and publicly implored Russia to hack into his opponent’s email to see if any damaging information might be found there. Republicans have steadfastly resisted any investigation into what happened in the 2016 election.

No, they would have seen it as a threat to their own partisan interests, and responded with the same ferocity that they bring to all partisan conflicts. They wouldn’t have worried about being criticized or being called partisan; they would have fought.

And in that case, it would have been the right thing to do. Instead, Vladimir Putin got just about everything he wanted: a destabilized, delegitimized, demoralized American system, and the election of a president whose advisers are tied up in an intricate web of connections to Russia and who is himself bizarrely solicitous of Putin’s needs and wants.

There’s no way to know whether the election might have turned out differently if the Obama administration had reacted more aggressively to the Russian assault. What we do know is that once again, Democrats were paralyzed by their worries about how things might look. It’s not something Republicans ever concern themselves with — and all you have to do is look at who’s in charge in Washington to see the results.