Presidents often are tested early, by unexpected crises or provocations by foreign adversaries. President-elect Donald Trump’s first test has come even before he is sworn in, and so far, he has responded with denial, equivocation and deflection.
The test has come over Russia’s brazen intrusion into the U.S. election process through its hacking of the servers at the Democratic National Committee and the email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager.
Contrary to what Trump said last week, the Russian intrusion was known long before the election. The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima reported in June that the Russians had penetrated the DNC network. Then on Oct. 7, intelligence officials publicly stated that the hacking had occurred, that the Russians were behind it and that “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.” That was an obvious reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump may have missed the October announcement. He was preoccupied with the infamous “Access Hollywood” video, which The Post had released the same afternoon. At the time, the video captured most of the media attention. It seemed to present a dire threat to Trump’s chances of winning the election. Trump weathered that storm and is a month away from being sworn in as president. Now he has a bigger problem awaiting him when he takes office, one he seems resistant to addressing.
In the past week, intelligence officials have added to their findings, concluding that the motivation behind Russia’s hacking was to help Trump win.
The findings about Russian interference and the motive behind their actions will not change the outcome of the election. On Monday, the electoral college’s electors will cast their votes in the states, and no doubt Trump will have his comfortable majority secured.
Throughout the campaign, Trump described his philosophy as one of “America first.” He drew an enthusiastic response from his supporters for signaling that he would refocus U.S. foreign policy away from the course pursued for the past eight years by President Obama and seemingly abandoning a broader consensus that has guided presidents of both parties for decades.
But if standing up to Russian attempts to interfere with American democracy isn’t a foundational principle of an “America first” policy, what is? Trump’s response has suggested a different focus and different philosophy, one that might be described as “Trump first,” rather than “America first.” His instincts appear to be aimed at shielding himself.
The hacking has become the elephant in the room since the election. It is a significant national security threat that Trump will have to deal with and also a roiling political debate that has threatened to complicate the transfer of power.
Trump’s posture toward Putin and to the hacking long has puzzled and alarmed current and former government officials who have experience in these areas. His friendly attitude toward Putin is contrary to the views of officials in both parties about the man behind Russian aggression in various parts of the world.
His invitation to Russia to try to hack Clinton’s emails, issued last summer during the Democratic National Convention, was inexcusable, even if in jest. He has long resisted embracing the evidence that the Russians were behind the hacking. He said it could have been done by other countries or by “somebody sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds.”
When it was reported about a week ago that the CIA had concluded that the Russians were trying to help him win the election, he responded with a tweet slamming the intelligence community for claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq War. The CIA was tragically wrong in that case, but was it necessary for the incoming president to publicly rebuke and provoke the agency?
All of this has put Trump at odds with the intelligence community he will soon oversee as commander in chief. That should be as worrisome to the incoming president as it is to the intelligence professionals. It has also put him at odds with many Republicans in Congress who are joining Democrats in their call for a thorough investigation and who already question whether Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil chief executive nominated by Trump to become secretary of state, is too friendly toward Putin.
Meanwhile, the political implications of the hacking have added to the raw emotions left behind by an election outcome that surprised people in both parties. Clinton is on record as believing that the combination of the Russian hacking and especially the interference of FBI Director James B. Comey over her emails cost her the election.
Caught in the middle is Obama, who is obviously loyal to Clinton and disappointed that Trump will be his successor. During his Friday news conference, he skirted some direct questions, showing the degree to which he is trying to maintain a working relationship with Trump during the transition while still trying to highlight the findings of the intelligence community. As he put it, “not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin.”
Since the election, Trump has rejected what would seem to be the obvious course to follow in light of the conclusions of the intelligence community. The simpler reaction would have been to respond the way many in Congress did, which was to express outrage at the interference and call for an investigation to examine exactly how the cyber-intrusion happened and how similar activities can be prevented in the future. Instead, he has continued to question the intelligence community and to suggest partisan motivations of those who accept the findings.
Perhaps his fear is that the more legitimacy is given to the conclusions that the Russians were motivated by their desire to help him or hurt Clinton, the less his victory will be seen as legitimate.
Or perhaps all of his tweets and statements are a prelude to Monday’s electoral college vote, after which he will feel freer to reverse course and join others in calling for a congressional investigation to go along with the review and report ordered by Obama.
In recent days, some of his advisers appeared to be preparing for that kind of shift. But the American people — and Trump advisers — have learned that no one safely speaks for Trump other than Trump himself. And they have learned how difficult it is for Trump to admit error.
On top of all this is the president-elect’s apparent lack of interest in receiving daily intelligence briefings, a standard procedure for presidents. That raises questions about how he plans to conduct foreign policy. Will he seek all available evidence as he weighs decisions? Whom will he listen to and trust? And will he ever have a trusting relationship with the vast intelligence-gathering resources at his command?
Trump is still a month away from occupying the Oval Office. But he is already caught up in a controversy that will define the opening of his presidency and is struggling to find his way.