For a president who lies more than any of his predecessors — even Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon! — Donald Trump can also be candid to a fault. Recall how, after firing FBI Director James Comey, he blew apart the administration spin that this had nothing to do with any investigation of the Trump campaign by openly admitting that he acted because of the “Russia thing.” Over the weekend, he did it again — and at the most damaging time imaginable: just before the blockbuster revelations about Donald Trump Jr. exclaiming “I love it” at the prospect of gettnig election help from the Russian government.
Trump’s aides claimed that he was tough on Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Hamburg, Germany. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump “pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement.” Anonymous U.S. officials denied Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s assertions that Trump had “accepted” Putin’s false assurances that Russia was not behind the hacking and leaking of Democratic Party documents last year.
But then on Sunday morning Trump took to Twitter to essentially confirm what Lavrov said: “I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it. I’ve already given my opinion.....” Yes, he did: In Warsaw, the day before his meeting with Putin, Trump opined, as he has many times before, “I think it could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries…. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.”
This is, as the British say, bollocks. We do know for sure: the FBI, CIA, NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a unanimous “high confidence” assessment in January that Russia was behind the hacking last year, and that its intent was to hurt Hillary Clinton and to help Donald Trump. Trump’s misleading assertions that it was “three or four” intelligence agencies, not all 17, are meaningless, because there was no dissent from the other intelligence agencies. And, as former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, “We saw no evidence whatsoever that it was anyone involved in this other than the Russians.”
Trump doesn’t care a whit about the national interest. All he cares about is his self-interest.
Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, Trump refuses to accept reality. In Hamburg, he even discussed with Putin an Alice-in-Wonderland proposal of forming a joint American-Russian “Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded.” As Sen. John McCain noted sarcastically on Sunday, “I am sure that Vladimir Putin could be of enormous assistance in that effort since he’s doing the hacking.” The idea is so inane that by the end of the day even Trump had disowned it, leaving his Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, who had loyally called the cyber-security partnership “a very significant accomplishment for the president,” twisting in the wind.
Trump’s denial of Russian election-meddling is all the more startling when contrasted with his reckless promulgation of baseless claims that millions of illegal ballots were cast in the presidential election. There is not an iota of evidence to support this assertion. It is an entirely imaginary scandal manufactured by Trump because his fragile psyche can’t handle the fact that Hillary Clinton won more popular votes than he did.
Yet Trump is pursuing nonexistent evidence of wrongdoing with all the powers at his disposal, setting up a voter fraud commission, headed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, that is itself fraudulent. Pretty much every state has declined to share voter information with this politically motivated commission because doing so would violate voters’ privacy and could open the way to genuine large-scale fraud — imagine if hackers could break into a single database containing all of the nation’s voter information.
How to explain the discrepancy, with Trump ignoring a real scandal and doggedly pursuing a phony one? The answer is pretty simple: Trump doesn’t care a whit about the national interest. All he cares about is his self-interest.
No matter what Donald Trump Jr. did or didn’t convey to him about his meeting with a Russian lawyer last year, the president is hardly ignorant of Russian machinations. Even before receiving the full intelligence briefings on what the Russians did —and it appears that the intelligence community has proof that Putin personally ordered the election meddling — he showed his awareness of the Russian role in July 2016 when he called on the Kremlin to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. This is what the lawyers call “guilty knowledge.”
But Trump isn’t mad about this assault on American democracy because he was its beneficiary. He is only mad that the “fake news” media, his political opponents and special counsel Robert Mueller continue to probe the Russian role. The most benign explanation is that Trump is worried that such investigations undermine his political legitimacy. The more sinister explanation is that he is worried that collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin will be exposed — something that appears more likely the more we know about Don Jr.’s willingness to seek Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton. Either way, the president is not treating this with the seriousness that an attack on our democracy deserves.
Trump is effectively giving the Russians a pass, refusing to impose any sanctions beyond the inadequate steps taken by President Obama — namely kicking out a few Russian diplomats and confiscating a couple of Russian diplomatic compounds. His administration is even lobbying to water down in the House a sanctions bill passed 97-2 by the Senate.
The result of Trump’s passivity is likely to encourage more such Russian assaults. James Clapper warns that the Russians are already “prepping the battlefield” for the 2018 election — and beyond. That may be just what Trump is counting on. Given current opinion polls, Republicans are facing a tough election next year and Trump will have trouble getting reelected in 2020. Maybe he’s counting on winning, to mash up two Beatles titles, “with a little help from my friends … back in the USSR.”
Max Boot is a contributing writer to Opinion and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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11:36 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details related to Donald Trump Jr.