For at least two years, Americans have tried to make sense of Donald Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin and refusal to fully acknowledge and counter Moscow’s ongoing attacks on our democracy. We’ve heard the excuse that Trump simply views the Kremlin interference story as a partisan effort to delegitimize his election.
But Friday’s indictments from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the president’s response to them, point to a more troubling and increasingly likely motivation: President Trump does not want to stop Kremlin interference intended to sway our elections in his favor. Rather, he welcomes it.
The Special Counsel’s revelations provided a detailed description of part of the modern information warfare Russia has waged against our country since at least 2014. It was a highly-coordinated assault, employing foreign agents on U.S. soil as well as Moscow-based internet operatives.
And yet, in response to this news, the president still couldn’t muster a forceful rebuke of Putin’s regime. Nor would he vow to hold it accountable and deter future attacks. On the contrary, he tried to spin the entire ordeal as an exoneration.
This is either willful ignorance or, more likely, disloyal opportunism. That’s because, whether he admits it or not, the president must know that the story he publicly calls a “hoax” is real. We have detailed evidence of Moscow’s subversion of our democracy. But it seems unlikely that the president will change his tune and take action to counter it.
“I can’t say I’ve been specifically directed to blunt or actually stop” Russian influence operations, NSA Director Mike Rogers shockingly revealed to the Senate Intelligence Committee this week. Rogers and the nation’s other top intelligence chiefs were on the Hill to provide their annual Worldwide Threats Assessment.
On this threat, the intel chiefs unanimously agreed: Russian information warfare against us continues unabated and the Kremlin will actively work to influence our upcoming elections. Trump’s own Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats even warned, “We need to inform the American public that this is real. We are not going to allow some Russian to tell us how we’re going to vote. There needs to be a national cry for that.”
Rather than echo this cry from our intelligence community, the president is actively obstructing efforts to stop the attacks.
According to Coats, the intelligence chiefs “essentially are relying on the investigations that are underway,” which is to say that they are collecting intelligence on the threat, but they have not been directed by the president to stop it. There’s a critical difference between the two.
As a former Central Intelligence Agency operations officer, I imagine that there are agency-level efforts to counter Moscow’s attacks already underway, and that there is some interagency coordination. Patriotic officers throughout our intelligence and law enforcement communities are no doubt working hard to protect our country against this threat. But it requires a whole-of-government response that simply cannot exist without presidential leadership and authorization.
Without it, we’re left vulnerable to targeted Kremlin propaganda intended to manipulate, divide, and deceive America; our ability to ascertain truth and, with it, freely choose our own leaders will be compromised. That may benefit the president, but it serves Moscow’s interests, not ours. For the nation as a whole, this is a dangerous reality with which we still must come to terms.
A president who embraces foreign influence is new to the U.S. But it is not new to countries around the world that have for years watched their political classes fall in line behind Putin’s money, power, and influence. It isn’t just Eastern European countries like Ukraine, Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Czechia. Politicians in Germany, France, Italy, and other Western European leaders have welcomed or actively sought Kremlin support in various forms. Everywhere Putin’s corruption permeates, there are politicians willing to accept this devil’s bargain for their own personal gain. Our president is one of them.
I’ve hoped that the traditional pressures of American politics would force Trump to at least allow Congress and Executive Branch agencies to deter and counter Moscow’s meddling on their own. But even that has been a stretch. Trump still promotes divisive anti-American propaganda messaging from the Kremlin, and continues to cover for Putin by misleading Americans about Russian interference.
He has also worked to undermine new sanctions on Putin and his co-conspirators, months after begrudgingly signing them into law.
If the past two years have taught us anything about Trump, it’s that the conventions of our Republic are of little value to him and quickly discarded when they impede his pursuit of power and wealth. Regardless, they remain critical to our freedom and we must be united in defending them.
We must encourage lawmakers and social media platforms to work together to create policies and regulations that combat hostile disinformation campaigns while protecting free speech and enterprise. We must all become skilled at identifying and rejecting propaganda intended to divide us and cause us to believe the worst of each other. We must ensure that state and local officials are protecting the access to voting of all eligible citizens and that vote counting systems have auditable redundancies and other safeguards.
Most importantly, we must exercise our right to choose our own leaders in 2018 by voting like liberty in America depends upon us now. Because it does.