In September 2016, the Obama administration gathered leaders of both parties for a secret intelligence briefing on Russia’s operation to influence the election. The theft and publication of Democratic emails was already a fait accompli, but a far more dire scenario concerned the administration. Would Russia hack into voting machines and tamper with the outcome? In the hopes of forestalling this true nightmare scenario, an attack on democracy far more serious than the information warfare that had already transpired, they “wanted congressional leaders to sign off on a bipartisan statement urging state and local officials to take federal help in protecting their voting-registration and balloting machines from Russian cyber-intrusions,” as the Washington Post reported several months later.
Securing bipartisan agreement seemed especially crucial. Obama’s team “worried that doing so unilaterally and without bipartisan congressional backing just weeks before the election would make Obama vulnerable to charges that he was using intelligence for political purposes.” But Republican leaders, especially Mitch McConnell, refused. McConnell, the Post reports, “raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.” And he was not alone: “Some of the Republicans in the briefing also seemed opposed to the idea of going public with such explosive allegations in the final stages of an election.”
Today, in the wake of Robert Mueller’s most recent (and almost certainly not last) indictment in the Russia investigation, Republicans have taken up the line that Obama is to blame for having failed to act more decisively. “Obama was President up to, and beyond, the 2016 Election. So why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?” tweeted President Trump this weekend. This line is being echoed by organs like the The Wall Street Journal editorial page: “The indictment also makes us wonder what the Obama Administration was doing amid all of this.”
There’s a defensible argument that Obama should have done more to respond to the Russian attack. But there isn’t a defensible Republican argument that Obama should have done more. Republicans are the reason Obama didn’t do more.
During the election, Trump welcomed Russian efforts to help his campaign. His top aides eagerly accepted a meeting from a Russian agent promising to give them campaign dirt. His confidante, Roger Stone, seemed to have advance knowledge of Russian email theft. Trump openly called for Russia to steal more of his opponent’s emails, and a Republican operative claiming to work on his behalf tried to obtain emails stolen by Russians. Trump aided and abetted the crime by repeatedly touting the importance of the hacked emails, and denying Russian involvement.
Even after the election, when the intelligence community had satisfied all doubts that Russia consciously aided Trump’s campaign, Trump continued to deny it. “I don’t believe they interfered,” he told Time in December. The hacking “could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.” Last November, Trump told reporters, “Every time [Putin] sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.” And when Obama did announce sanctions to retaliate against Russian interference after the election, Trump communicated through various back channels that he intended to weaken them once he took office.
Trump was an eager partner to Russia’s efforts on his behalf: magnifying the value of their attack, assisting the cover-up of the crime, and undermining the punishment of it. The GOP Establishment was an eager, or at least willing, partner to Trump’s campaign, and its partnership was the primary factor preventing a stronger response to the Russian attack.
The pervasive lying of this administration and its allies should not numb us to the mind-bending backwardness of the accusation now being made on the president’s behalf. Trump is blaming Obama for having failed to stop the crime that Trump abetted. This is the criminal taunting the cop for not doing more to stop him.