President Donald Trump questioned on Monday why his predecessor did not do more to address Russian meddling in the 2016 election, even as his own administration has been quiet about its efforts to address such interference in the future.
“Obama was President up to, and beyond, the 2016 Election. So why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?” Trump wrote on Twitter on Monday.
Last month, the subject came up in an interview with former vice president Joe Biden. As Politico reported at the time:
Biden said … Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stopped the Obama administration from speaking out about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign by refusing to sign on to a bipartisan statement of condemnation.
That moment, the former Democratic vice president said, made him think “the die had been cast … this was all about the political play.”
Unsurprisingly, McConnell had a different take. (“McConnell’s office disputed this account, pointing to a letter signed by all four congressional leaders in September 2016 and sent to the president of the National Association of State Election Directors, urging cybersecurity precautions in light of reports of attempted hacking. That missive, however, did not address Russia specifically, or the larger topic of influence beyond voting systems.”)
So when Trump asks why President Barack Obama didn’t do more to stop the Russian meddling, a possible answer may be that Republicans chose to play politics. (Obama also did throw 35 Russians out of the country, which in our estimation was a slap on the wrist.) Had Republicans agreed to a true 9/11-type commission to investigate Russian meddling, we might have already gotten to the bottom of this. (Come to think of it, perhaps that is exactly why they wouldn’t agree to a commission.)
McConnell needs to be pressed further on whether he turned down a request to issue a specific warning about Russia. (As Politico reported last month, “But a former Obama White House official … echoed Biden’s frustration with the Senate majority leader, pointing to the way Obama’s White House chief of staff Denis McDonough described the dispute in an op-ed last summer.”) We should have everyone, if at least just for the sake of the historical record, testify under oath about what occurred.
Listen, McConnell might have a perfectly valid reason for refusing to issue a specific warning. He might have thought at that point the intelligence was not convincing. He could have reasoned that Trump supporters would have cried foul, and the backlash might have been even more helpful to Trump. The honest answer may be that, like just about everyone else, McConnell never dreamed that Trump would win. He could well have figured that the political process should play out and that all this could be dealt with after the fact. That may have been a horrible mistake, but it would not have been born of malice nor even partisanship (i.e. letting Trump lose “fair and square” was preferable). Without further detail, however, McConnell’s actions can easily been seen by Democrats as rank partisanship, or worse, a willingness to let Russia help Trump win the race.
Here’s what I’d like to hear from McConnell (and he should be eager to clear this up):
- Did he consult with the Trump campaign about whether to sign onto a warning about Russia? Did he consult with other political operatives?
- Did he have all the intelligence information needed to make a decision as to Russian action?
- If this occurs in 2018, will he be willing to step forward to warn the public about Russian election manipulation?
- Going forward, should there be an established protocol for issuing such a warning — perhaps from an independent advisory commission of former military and intelligence officials?
France had the American example before its own election in 2017. As a result, it took a far different approach when hacking occurred there. Reuters reported in May 2017:
France sought to keep a computer hack of frontrunner Emmanuel Macron’s campaign emails from influencing the outcome of the presidential election, with the electoral commission warning on Saturday that it may be a criminal offense to republish the data. …
“We knew that this kind of risk would be present during the presidential campaign, because it has happened elsewhere. Nothing will be left without a response,” French President Francois Hollande told French news agency AFP.
The election commission, which supervises the electoral process, warned social and traditional media not to publish the hacked emails lest they influence the vote outcome, but may find it difficult to enforce its rules in an era where people get much of their news online, information flows freely across borders and many users are anonymous.
The First Amendment prevents our government from censorship or prior restraint, and in the United States, printing hacked emails almost certainly would not be a crime. However, the candor of the French government and the self-restraint of the French media — in contrast with the feeding frenzy in the final days of our 2016 election — are striking. Perhaps in the future, a responsible bipartisan repudiation of these leaks and some self-restraint among the media might be in order. (After all, should the media publish emails that cannot be authenticated? Should such publication come with a warning that the emails were uncovered as part of an illegal attempt by foreigners to influence our election?)
Unfortunately, we suspect in the future that the advantaged party will shout the embarrassing information from the rooftops, and the partisan press behind that candidate will make certain that as many people as possible see it.
And that is precisely why it is critical to have a tick-tock accounting of the events leading up to the 2016 presidential election. If nothing else, we want parties in the future to be shamed into (or at least give serious thought to) defending the integrity of our electoral system from foreign actors. It’s too bad we’re reduced to the hope that politicians in the future might be shamed into acting like patriots.
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