President Trump's most ardent supporters in the media and elsewhere appear to have a dilemma on their hands.
The Washington Post on Friday reported that former president Barack Obama was informed by the CIA last August that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered a cyber-campaign to disrupt the U.S. presidential race but took little action to deter further interference in the months leading up to the November election. The Post's article cited criticism of Obama by former members of his administration, including one who said, “I feel like we sort of choked.”
Ordinarily a report of this nature would thrill Trump loyalists, who relish opportunities to cast Obama as having been weak and indecisive, especially on foreign policy matters.
Yet embracing The Post story would seem to require acknowledging an underlying premise — that Russia did, in fact, meddle in the election. Trump himself has refused to fully endorse the consensus view of U.S. intelligence agencies. And some of his biggest boosters have completely rejected it, ostensibly because conceding that Russia worked to elect Trump might diminish the president's victory.
“There was no hacking by the Russians,” Rush Limbaugh told his radio listeners this month. “Now, the [Democratic National Committee] to this day wants you to think it’s the Russians that got ’em. But there was no proven hacking. There hasn’t been any proven Russian hacking of anything, folks! That’s the whole thing! There’s no evidence for any underlying information that is providing the fuel for this ridiculous, silly soap opera.”
Fox News host Sean Hannity has been pushing an elaborate conspiracy theory that involves the CIA framing Russia for cyberattacks. “The CIA can actually blame Russia for an attack on an American because they'll put their fingerprints all over the attack,” Hannity said on his radio show in March. “Meanwhile, it came from within."
Friday's report by The Post's Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous creates a binary choice: Deny Russian hacking or blame Obama for failing to stop it. There is no way for these two positions to coexist, right?
Note that Trump sent this tweet almost 24 hours before The Post's report went online. The Post had sought comment from the White House, as well as the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
It is impossible to know for sure what was going on in the president's head when he sent the tweet, but it sure looks like he was priming his base for the impending scoop. And, in classic Trump fashion, he appears to have been trying to reconcile contradictory ideas. He presented Russian meddling as a lingering uncertainty — a matter of "if.” Yet he also pinned the blame for any meddling that might have happened on Obama.
Translation: The facts don't matter. Whether Russia was framed or Obama choked, it's all good for Trump.
This is a template argument for the president's backers, and he provided it even before publication of The Post's report.