It’s no secret that President Trump isn’t a fan of the idea that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Even when he’s conceded it, he’s gone only halfway. He's accepting of Vladimir Putin’s denials. He clearly only begrudgingly signed Congress’s new Russia sanctions. And he has even reportedly dispatched a conspiracy theorist to brief his CIA director on the matter.
But seldom have we seen Trump’s insecurity and stubbornness on this topic in such stark relief as we do today.
The Post’s Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe and Philip Rucker are out with an extensive, tour-de-force account of Trump’s handling of Russian meddling in the election during his first year in office — based on more than 50 interviews. And they conclude that over the course of that year, “Trump became only more adamant in his rejections of it.”
Some of the accounts are jaw-dropping. A few worth highlighting:
- Trump said it was “a trap” to admit that Russia hacked Democratic emails after being briefed on the intelligence community’s conclusions on Jan. 6.
- Five days later, after admitting under pressure that he thought Russia was behind it, Trump clearly regretted it. He told aides, “It’s not me,” and, “It wasn’t right.”
- A former U.S. intelligence official said, “If you talk about Russia, meddling, interference — that takes the [president's daily brief] off the rails.”
- “If you say ‘Russia interference’ to him, it’s all about him,” a senior Republican strategist said. “He judges everything as about him.”
- While being briefed by his special envoy to Ukraine about a proposal within the administration to arm Ukrainian forces against Russia-backed separatists, Trump asked why it was in the U.S. interest. The conversation was about Ukraine but seemed to capture Trump’s frustration on so many Russia-related fronts. The envoy, Kurt Volker, told The Post that Trump repeated at least five times, "I want peace."
Trump has taken few concrete actions to hold Russia accountable or prevent future interference, even while he has gone hard at trying to prove his mythical claims of voter fraud.
His most vocal critics will believe that’s because Trump did something wrong — such as colluding with Russia or obstructing the related investigation. The simpler (and not mutually exclusive) explanation is one that those who have worked with Trump seem to subscribe to. And it’s that Trump is simply exceedingly prideful and insecure and that even the mere mention of Russian interference inherently — in his mind — means questioning his legitimacy as president.
One former National Security Council staffer said there is an “unspoken understanding” that no one should bring up the topic of Russian meddling, because Trump views it as a personal affront. A senior administration official added that the “president obviously feels . . . that the idea that he’s been put into office by Vladimir Putin is pretty insulting.”
But Trump's distinct brand of Russophobia isn’t completely illogical. For all of Trump’s pronouncements that he won by a landslide, just moving the needle by 1 percentage point in each state means Trump would have lost. Nobody can prove Trump would have lost without Russian interference, but it’s not a massive leap. (A Quinnipiac poll this week, incidentally, found 41 percent of Americans believe Russia changed the outcome in Trump’s favor.)
As Trump’s presidency and approval rating continue to languish, and as the Russia investigation continues to close in around him, it seems very unlikely any of this will change anytime soon. How that recalcitrance manifests itself in Trump’s actions — and whether they become more desperate — is the real question.
But to be clear: A president who can’t even countenance the mere mention of Russian interference is thinking about these things more emotionally than rationally. And that’s probably the best interpretation of Trump’s actions as described by The Post’s story.