For months, it’s been acknowledged — often quietly — that the Trump administration isn’t doing much to deter further Russian interference in U.S. elections. The Washington Post reported extensively in December about how President Trump doesn’t even like to talk about Russian interference — much less act to prevent it — and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders struggled last week to name concrete steps he had taken.
But we may have just seen our most high-profile admission yet that the U.S. government is asleep at the wheel — from the government itself.
Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, made some pretty blunt statements Tuesday to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Rogers acknowledged that Russian President Vladimir Putin probably believes he’s paid “little price” for the interference and thus hasn’t stopped. He also said flatly that Trump has not granted him any new authorities to strike at Russian cyber-operations.
This was not new information, but it was delivered with extraordinary bluntness and a smidgen of frustration with Trump’s lack of urgency. (“When combined with his saying ‘we’re probably not doing enough’ and that Putin hasn’t paid enough of a price to change his behavior, it’s clear that Rogers sees something missing from the effort to prevent a repeat: willpower.”)
On the Senate floor today, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the minority leader, blasted the president: “According to several reports, Kremlin-linked bots continue to stoke political divisions in the U.S. via misinformation on social media. . . . [Rogers] is absolutely right. It is extraordinary, confounding, and dangerous, how little the Trump Administration is doing about Putin’s campaign to undermine our grand democracy,” he said.
The Democratic leader continued:
“President Trump refused to punish Putin after he took office, despite the consensus view of 17 American Intelligence Agencies that Putin interfered in our elections. President Trump has still refused to fully implement the package of sanctions that passed by this Congress with only five dissenting votes combined between both House and Senate. . . .
A hostile foreign power interfered in our elections, continues to interfere with our democracy, and is planning to interfere in our next elections — and the president of the United States is hardly lifting a finger. It’s as if they were preparing for war and tanks were lining up or planes and we decided to do nothing. Cyberattacks, manipulation of news media is another way that hostile powers attack us.”
He concluded with this statement: “People have to wonder why President Trump is so soft on Russia, so unwilling to criticize President Putin, and so slow to stand up for America and protect our democracy.”
Actually, we need not wonder. Trump should provide an explanation. Congress — the four leaders in the House and Senate — can write a joint letter. They can, in the course of oversight, ask senior intelligence officials whether they have requested additional authority, and whether they can explain the president’s inactivity. And finally, the Senate can refuse to confirm additional nominees for national-security posts unless and until the president presents a complete plan to defend our election process and to root out Russian manipulation of social media.
Trump might have any number of reasons for refusing to proceed. First, he really, really doesn’t want to acknowledge just how much effort the Russians — on his behalf — have put in their plan to destabilize our democracy.
Second, he might fear Putin’s wrath, maybe a revelation of embarrassing information, if he acts to intensify sanctions or to address election interference. This would be consistent with the theory that there was either an explicit or implicit quid pro quo arrangement between Russia and the Trump team. Just to be clear, this has not yet be proven. However, sometimes the best evidence is the proverbial dog that does not bark.
Finally, it may be that Trump, fearing huge losses for the Republicans, shares Putin’s aim to cast doubt on the credibility of our elections. Perhaps he wants to sow doubt about the legitimacy of the Democratic victories he anticipates, thereby undermining the legitimacy of any Democrat-led impeachment proceeding. This would be a horrible repudiation of his oath of office, and a sign that he is sabotaging a core tenet of our democracy — free and fair elections — for personal gain. But let’s not forget he did precisely this during the run-up to the 2016 election, suggesting that if he lost he might not accept the results.
Maybe there are more benign explanations for Trump’s actions, but the onus is on him to explain why he’s neglecting his duties. And if there is interference, real evidence of tampering the American people and Congress must hold him fully accountable. No one who refuses to protect the sanctity of our elections should remain in the Oval Office. And, yet, there he remains, thanks to his Republican protectors.