Starting early in the 2020 general election — and increasingly frequently as the campaign wore on — President Trump offered a talking point on Russia: No president before had been tougher on it, he claimed, than he had. But not only that, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself had received the message.

“By the way, there’s been no president — and you can ask Putin about it or anybody else — that’s been tougher on Russia than I have,” Trump said May 8 on Fox News. He added that his actions are “not what they love to hear.”

“I’ve been the worst thing that ever happened to Russia; Putin understands that,” Trump added May 24.

“President Putin would tell you that right now,” he said Sept. 4 at a news conference.

“Putin, I guarantee you, says this to everybody: Nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have,” he told Rush Limbaugh on Oct. 9.

Even as Trump was saying these things, we have now found out, Russia was waging one of the most significant spy operations in recent American history. Reuters broke the news Sunday that the Commerce and Treasury departments had been penetrated, and since then, we’ve gradually learned more about Russia’s role and the huge extent of the operation, which involves network management software made by the firm SolarWinds. Those penetrated now include the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the National Institutes of Health.

As The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima and Craig Timberg reported this week:

The scale of the Russian espionage operation appears to be large, said several individuals familiar with the matter. “This is looking very, very bad,” said one person. SolarWinds products are used by organizations across the world. They include all five branches of the U.S. military, the Pentagon, State Department, Justice Department, NASA, the Executive Office of the President and the National Security Agency, the world’s top electronic spy agency, according to the firm’s website.
Its clients also include the top 10 U.S. telecommunications companies.
“This is a big deal, and given what we now know about where breaches happened, I’m expecting the scope to grow as more logs are reviewed,” said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. “When an aggressive group like this gets an open sesame to many desirable systems, they are going to use it widely.”

The penetration rekindles long-running questions about Trump’s approach to Russia — questions that have spanned his entire presidency and now threaten to cast a pall over his final days in office. While the U.S. government writ large has taken significant steps and imposed many sanctions on Russia, there are plenty of indications that these things were done despite Trump rather than because of him.

Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on Russia’s responsibility for the 2016 election hacks, the alleged targeting of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and, reportedly, the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain. He also, most recently, declined to weigh in on another poisoning tied to the Kremlin: that of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The Post and others have also reported that Trump has such a visceral reaction to bad news involving Russia that aides try to avoid even bringing it to his attention. Former White House national security adviser John Bolton has said he has “scars from bringing up things about Russia that [Trump] probably didn’t want to hear.”

Thus far, Trump’s see-no-evil approach seems to be carrying the day. He has yet to respond to the news of the hack, which is significant in and of itself. Bolton’s replacement as national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, cut short a European vacation to return to Washington and examine the situation.

But in this moment, it’s worth noting how Trump and the White House had assured that their approach was having the desired effect. Trump might not have talked tough on Russia — preferring to instead talk about how he wanted to have a good relationship with Putin — but the argument was that his administration’s actions were picking up the slack. We were assured this approach — bifurcated as it was — was working.

O’Brien even wrote an extensive Post op-ed in August to that effect, claiming that “Ronald Reagan is looking down on us with a knowing smile” when it comes to Trump’s policy of friendly deterrence.

“No nation, including Russia, should doubt the president’s commitment to defending the United States and our allies,” O’Brien wrote.

He even suggested that tougher measures were being handled behind closed doors. Addressing the controversy over Trump casting doubt on U.S. intelligence about Russia targeting U.S. soldiers, O’Brien assured, “If recently reported allegations of Russian malign activity toward Americans in Afghanistan prove true, Russia knows from experience that it will pay a price — even if that price never becomes public.”

If there has been a price paid, it still hasn’t become public. Nor is it clear that Russia knows it will pay a significant enough price.

And this was another example of Trump offering a very different message from those around him. While Trump declined to even raise the issue during a meeting with Putin and invoked his favored “hoax” language, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he told Russia’s foreign minister that there would be “an enormous price to pay” if the intelligence bore out. That is decidedly not what Trump said.

O’Brien in recent months also repeatedly suggested that the Trump administration had somewhat exhausted its options when it comes to deterring Russia.

“We’ve sanctioned the heck out of the Russians — individuals, companies, the government,” O’Brien said in August. “We’ve kicked out literally scores of Russian spies. We’ve closed down all their consulates on the West Coast. We closed down diplomatic facilities. There’s not a lot left we can do with the Russians.”

O’Brien said something similar in late October.

“One of the problems we have with both Iran and Russia is that we have so many sanctions on those countries right now that there’s very little left for us to do,” he said, “but we’re looking at every potential deterrence we can on those countries, as well as others.”

A public rebuke from a U.S. president — or at least a president weighing in as Pompeo did — would seem to be a likely candidate. But Trump has repeatedly and expressly avoided this. And the alternatives don’t seem to have been working as well as we have long been assured they were.