Friday’s federal indictments against Russian operatives responsible for attacking American elections in 2016 weren’t just important; they were historic. There’s no comparable precedent for the U.S. government detailing an illegal foreign intelligence operation intended to put an adversary’s preferred candidate in power.
The indictments are therefore more than just a legal document: they’re an instrument through which the United States is pushing back against those who attacked us.
That significance is amplified by our president’s reluctance to take any actions of his own.
Throughout Donald Trump’s brief career in politics, we’ve been told repeatedly that when he’s attacked, Trump punches back 10 times harder. It’s precisely why, Trump World explains, he so often gets hysterical in response to minor slights.
But we’re occasionally reminded of the limits of the principle. Trump lashes out at those who attack him personally, but those who attack the United States should apparently expect far less.
A Washington Post analysis noted over the weekend that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments have “laid down a challenge to the president that no longer can be ignored.” To which Trump effectively replied, “Oh yeah? Watch me.”
President Donald Trump railed against the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election Saturday night into Sunday, sending off a stream of tweets attacking the FBI, CNN, the Democratic Party, his own national security adviser, former President Barack Obama and the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
He did not criticize Russia, or voice concern over Vladimir Putin’s attempts to undermine U.S. elections.
By last night, Trump’s target list expanded to include Oprah Winfrey – whom the president described as “very insecure,” irony be damned – after he saw a television segment he didn’t like.
The avalanche of bizarre tweets included all kinds of easily discredited falsehoods. What they did not include was (1) any acknowledgement of the fact that Russian operatives took steps to elect him; (2) any concern about the foreign attack on the United States; (3) any evidence that Russia should expect consequences for its crimes; or (4) any assurances that Trump intends to prevent similar attacks in the future.
Indeed, the indictments came just a couple of days after the leaders of U.S. intelligence agencies told Congress that they fully expect Russia to try the same tactics again in 2018 and 2020 – though Trump hasn’t specifically directed them to mobilize in preparation for this likelihood.
When it comes to congressional Democrats, American news organizations, Barack Obama, the FBI, Oprah, and federal scrutiny of the scandal, we see Donald Trump’s fury. When it comes to our Russian attackers, we see Donald Trump’s passivity.
Confronted with powerful evidence of a foreign adversary launching a years-long intelligence operation to undermine our political system, the American president seems oddly detached, indifferent to the intervention, aside from petty efforts to spin the story as some kind of personal validation.
Daniel Fried, a career diplomat under presidents of both parties who is now at the Atlantic Council, toldthe New York Times, “It is astonishing to me that a president of the United States would take this so lightly or see it purely through the prism of domestic partisanship.” Fried added that Trump’s reaction to Friday’s indictments only reinforces concerns that the president has something to hide.
“I have no evidence that he’s deliberately pulling his punches because he has to, but I can’t dismiss it,” the diplomat said.
Friday’s indictments offered Trump an opportunity to adopt a new posture and make clear he won’t tolerate Russia’s transgressions. Over the weekend, however, he seemed to be enraged by everyone but Russia.
James Clapper, a former director of national intelligence, told CNN yesterday, “Above all this rhetoric here, again, we’re losing sight of, what is it we’re going to do about the threat posed by the Russians? And [Trump] never – he never talks about that.”
Now seems like an excellent time to ask why that is.