Briefing reporters on the status of the Russia investigation, Senators Burr and Warner warned that the Russian government is not yet done meddling in U.S. elections. Their investigation into 2016 is not yet complete, and open issues include the question of Trump campaign or other American assistance to the Russian electoral intervention. But the senators’ remarks were just as much directed to the future as to the past. It is critical, Sen. Warner advised reporters, that there be a “whole of government approach” to blunt the Russian active measures program.
Easier said than done. A whole government approach would require an executive fully prepared to work with the Congress to meet this challenge. President Donald Trump has given no such indication: quite the opposite. It falls to Congress to decide how to exercise its oversight and other constitutional authorities to exact from this administration the necessary degree of cooperation and support for protecting the electoral process in 2018 and 2020. And time is short. Senators Burr and Warner are working on an expedited schedule with their eyes on potential attacks on the mid-term and next presidential election.
The problem Congress faces is now well-known: a president unwilling to acknowledge, and also periodically actively denying, the threat from Russia. In the briefing’s question and answer exchange, a reporter asked for a response to the president’s repeated suggestion that the Russia investigation was a “hoax.” But the reporter seemed to assume that Trump did not mean the “hoax” comment to apply to the investigation overall, but only as an attack on that aspect that involves possible collusion. Senator Burr pushed the question aside, turning it back to Trump while commenting only that the issue of collusion was “still open.”
There is in this exchange an ambiguity – – and worse than that, a misunderstanding – – on a critical point. The president has disputed the basis for investigation overall, not just in relation to collusion. Those who believe otherwise are relying on a supposed “concession” by President-Elect Trump at a press conference on January 11 of this year. But the transcript shows that Trump muddied his position and dismissed the Russian cyber attacks just as much as, if not more than, he “conceded” them.
By the time of the January 11 press conference, the intelligence community had publicly reported its “high confidence” findings of Russian interference. The President opened by saying, “I think it was Russia,” but then added, “I think we also get hacked by other countries and people.” The president meant to suggest that the Russian activity was routine, nothing out of the ordinary, and he went on to question why, if this activity was so widespread, the press had chosen to make a “big deal” out of the Russian part in it. He also noted with approval Putin’s denials of involvement: “I respected the fact that he said that.”
Of course, if Putin denied what Trump “conceded” to be true, what would there have been to “respect” in a wholly false statement? Trump layered in the point to keep open the question of the very activity that he ostensibly acknowledged. Trump then added for good measure that the Democratic National Committee could have protected itself: but it was, in his opinion, “totally open to be hacked.”
So all in all, in offering up his January “concession,” the president was not convinced that the Russian active measures were a “big deal and he “respected” Putin’s denials– while possessing the firmest of convictions about the routine nature of foreign intrusions and the “total” failure of DNC security systems and protocols.
Trump had the occasion in July to discuss the matter face-to-face with the Russian President. Putin once again denied Russian culpability and reported that the American president was satisfied with this denial. Trump did not go that far in his account of the conversation, but once again suggested he remain prepared to give the Russians at least the benefit of his stubborn doubts. He reported being told by “somebody” that “if he [Putin] did do it you wouldn’t have found out about it. Which is a very interesting point.” He suggested that this was evidence of a sort that maybe the Russians were innocent: we would never know if the Russians did “it,” because if we did think we knew, it would mean that they didn’t.
So much for the January pseudo-concession, which has receded into the background. He has since left no question about his view of the Russian interference “hoax.” The most recent of his tweets on the subject could not be clearer in conveying this view. After Facebook’s disclosure of Russian ad activity on its platform, Trump tweeted: “The Russia hoax continues, now its ads on Facebook.” He intended for the public audience for his tweets to discount or disregard the Facebook findings–findings of fact he would have no basis whatever to challenge. Trump is effectively framing these facts as “fake news,” part and parcel of the “hoax.” Moreover, he was not responding to evidence of collusion or arguments for its existence. He was rejecting the established fact of Russian attempts through social media such as Facebook to influence the 2016 election.
Just today, the President responded to the Burr-Warner briefing with a tweet wholly lacking a positive statement about the Senate’s work. What it did offer was this, which does not bode well for Trump Administration support in countering the Russia threat:
Why Isn’t the Senate Intel Committee looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up-FAKE!
Why Isn't the Senate Intel Committee looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up-FAKE!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 5, 2017
That’s it: not a word about a bipartisan Senate investigative finding about Russia and Moscow’s planning for more interventions in U.S. elections. This sort of tweet is not simply unhelpful and incomprehensibly off the point. It betrays a president in a blinding rage over this issue and wholly unreliable in dealing with a major national security question.
This is apparently not all just public posturing by a president angered by any suggestion that this election was tainted. Earlier this summer, CNN reported that the NSA Director privately “expressed frustration to lawmakers about his inability to convince the President to accept US intelligence that Russia meddled in the election.” And the Wall Street Journal reported that the president in a phone call to the NSA Director “questioned the veracity of the intelligence community’s judgment that Russia had interfered with the election.” The result in multiple press reports is a White House inactive in the face of a major foreign attack on the democratic process. CNN has reported that, according to “multiple senior administration officials,” there are “few signs” that the President is attending to this issue. Asked about any indication of affirmative presidential engagement, a senior official told CNN: “I’ve seen no evidence of it.”
Mr. Trump’s behavior, beginning with the refusals to accept and publicly affirm Russian electioneering in 2016, puts in serious question the viability of the “whole of government approach” to safeguarding the electoral process. It suggests a potentially disabling conflict and lack of cooperation between the legislative and executive branches in addressing a matter of paramount importance. Already, as Senator Warner noted at the briefing, states are complaining about the timeliness and quality of briefings from the Department of Homeland Security.
Problems with DHS performance now and in the future may or may not have to do with Trump’s refusal to accept the need for action on the Russia. But it is impossible to discount the possibility that White House recalcitrance and hostility will affect the behavior of political appointees. There is also an urgent need to know if the White House takes specific actions to limit the executive branch’s constructive engagement with the Congress to address the Russian “active measures” intrusion into U.S. politics.
Congress will need to press President Trump–and every executive branch senior official with responsibilities in the Russia matter– for a clear statement of the Administration’s position, and for consistency in public support for the response to Russia. This means no more games played with the claims of a “hoax.” Failure by the Administration to issue unequivocal commitments should trigger more aggressive legislative measures, including but not limited to ongoing and energetic oversight, to secure executive cooperation–and to root out obstruction.