The most disturbing thing about Russia’s interference with the U.S. election — whether or not it had the desired effect — is Russia’s interference. The second most disturbing thing — and now that he is about to be president, it is a pretty close second — is Trump’s obstinate, unyielding refusal to accept the unanimous conclusion of U.S. intelligence experts that Russia was behind the hacking.
No new president wants to take office with a shadow on the legitimacy of his election (and, to be clear, I accept that Trump was elected and will be president). So Trump’s instinctive bristling at this storyline may be understandable. But Trump has been taking pains for months to dismiss reports of Russian involvement — except, of course, when he was encouraging the Russians to do even more of it.
But being president-elect and being president requires, or should require, rising above pique and defensiveness. The responsible course, from the start, would have been to express concern, indeed alarm, about the reports, not to shoot them down.
The responsible course, as president-elect, would have been to criticize Russia, not to suggest, falsely, that the question had not arisen during the campaign (“If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act?”) or that hackers, unless caught in the act, cannot be reliably identified. The responsible course would be to insist that this kind of behavior cannot be tolerated and must be punished. It would be to call, not for moving on, but for drilling down, to understand what a foreign power, a hostile foreign power, did in connection with an American election.
That is not the Trump course, nor the course of Trump lieutenants. On CNN Thursday, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway dismissed the debate as an effort to “fight the last war,” and blamed its victim.
“This is really about the DNC’s breach,” she said. “They didn’t have the proper security … and someone was able to hack the information. We are not in favor of foreign governments interfering in our elections or interfering in our intelligence. But we’re also not in favor of our intelligence interfering with elections after the fact.”
Is that what she thinks is happening, that this is about intelligence agencies’ interfering with the election? Is that what Trump thinks is happening?
The president-elect appears unwilling to see this issue, perhaps incapable of seeing it, in any way except in terms of his own personal politics. Asked about Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) call for sanctions against Russia, Trump went low: “As you know, he ran against me.”
But this isn’t about Trump’s political prowess; it’s about Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), in a statement after President Obama’s announcement of sanctions, stated that “Russia does not share America’s interests. In fact, it has consistently sought to undermine them, sowing dangerous instability around the world.” President-elect Trump: agree or disagree?