the national interest

Trump: Obama Should Have Punished Russia, Which Might Be Innocent

Donald Trump appears before the media in Poland. Photo: Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Lawyers have a concept called “arguing in the alternative,” in which a counsel makes a series of mutually exclusive defenses against the prosecution’s case. (My client shot him in self-defense/The victim was never shot at all/Somebody else shot him.) The strategy can work in a court of law, where a prosecutor must establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It does not work so well in real-life situations where you are trying to appear believable. Unless you’re Donald Trump, in which case — having long ago established your conviction that nothing you can do or say would alienate your core supporters (i.e., the Fifth Avenue Principle) — you can present alternative facts or alternative arguments without embarrassment.
In Europe today, Trump was asked about Russian meddling in the election. Trump surreally alternated between casting doubt on the certainty of Russian involvement, and flaying his predecessor for his failure to punish Russia:

Trump begins by casting doubt on whether Russia truly directed the hacks of Democratic emails:

I think it could have been other people and other countries. Could have been a lot of people interfered.

Then he pivots to his argument that, despite being given clear evidence of Russian involvement, Barack Obama failed to publish Russia swiftly enough:

Barack Obama found out about this, in terms of it it were Russia… why did he do nothing about it? He was told it was Russia, by the CIA, as I understand it, and he did nothing about it. They say he choked … That’s the real question, why did he do nothing from August, all the way to November 8th.

Then he pivots back to insisting the evidence of Russian involvement is not that solid:

Mistakes have been made … Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure. I remember when I was sitting back listening about Iraq, weapons of mass destruction — how everybody was 100 percent sure that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? That led to one big mess. They were wrong and it led to a mess.

And then, finally, Trump pivots back again to Obama’s failure to act:

And then, finally, Trump pivots back again to Obama’s failure to act:

But my big question is why did Obama do nothing about it from August all the way to November 8th.

To take the latter point first, Obama’s tepid response to the Russian attack can certainly be questioned. Trump is referring to a lengthy Washington Post report, which includes the “I feel like we sort of choked” quote from an official. Trump goes on to (correctly) opine that Obama failed to act because he believed Hillary Clinton was going to win anyway.

But why else did Obama refuse to take more forceful action against Russia? Because Republicans clearly signaled they would treat any such action or statement by the administration as an illegitimate partisan effort to sway the election. The Republican leadership, briefed on the attack at the time, cast doubt on the intelligence and refused cooperation. Trump was publicly denying Russian involvement (it could have been some 400-pound guy on his bed, he insisted in September) while also publicly stating over and over that the election was going to be “rigged.”

So while Obama may have made the wrong decision, he didn’t have any safe options. If he denounced the Russian attack or took stronger retaliatory action, and Clinton won (as most officials of both parties expected), he risked allowing the Republican Party to question his actions and delegitimize the election result. They would have called Obama’s intelligence blaming Russia cooked. Like Trump is doing right now. Decisions are harder to make when you have to consider the legitimacy of an election being contested by partisan adversaries who are free to make alt-arguments.

Trump: Why Didn’t Obama Punish Putin, Who Might Be Innocent?