President Donald Trump has often seemed to conflate himself with the government, and his own interests with the nation’s.
At times, the results are merely ridiculous. At others, they are actively dangerous. At the moment, Trump is declining to protect the United States from foreign interference in its elections, because it’s politically inconvenient and personally irritating to him.
Despite repeated evidence of Russian attempts to interfere in American elections—most recently detailed in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, released last week—the White House continues to refuse to take action, because the president can’t separate the nation’s security from questions about the legitimacy of his victory in the 2016 election. Wednesday’s New York Times offers disturbing new details:
In a meeting this year, Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, made it clear that Mr. Trump still equated any public discussion of malign Russian election activity with questions about the legitimacy of his victory. According to one senior administration official, Mr. Mulvaney said it “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level.”
(Mulvaney says he does not recall ever making such a statement.)
It’s good to read news stories critically, and the Times story is heavily sourced to people who seem interested in rehabilitating the image of Kirstjen Nielsen, who was pushed out as secretary of homeland security earlier this month. Nielsen has been tarred by her association with Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, which she defended aggressively, often with blatant falsehoods, and some of the leaks seem geared at portraying her as standing up for issues that the president would not.
Nielsen’s career choices speak for themselves, and one need not accept apologies on her behalf to accept the story, which fits into a long pattern for the president. He has repeatedly questioned whether Russia was really behind intrusions into the 2016 election, most prominently at the disastrous Helsinki conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He still hasn’t condemned Russia. The U.S. shows little sign of taking action to prevent future foreign interference.
Trump isn’t necessarily wrong to believe that talk of Russian interference delegitimizes his win. Extensive documentary evidence shows that the Russian government hoped for a Trump win and took action to effect it. Determining whether those actions actually changed the outcome is probably impossible. As Trump has noted, there’s no evidence that vote tallies themselves were changed. But as Trump also likes to boast, the election is over. These questions may be politically and personally hurtful to the president, but they’re history, and the 2020 election looms—with the U.S. apparently little better prepared than it was in 2016.
Officials below the president insist that they are focused on the threat from Russia. “I don’t think there’s been a discussion between a senior U.S. official and Russians in this administration where we have not raised this issue about our concern about Russia’s interference in our elections,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday. In August 2018, shortly after the Helsinki summit, American intelligence officials presented a unified argument that Russia had interfered, and that the United States needed to do more to harden its defenses.
But Trump stands apart. His silence isn’t just a matter of messaging. It has policy effects as well. Trump has treated the Department of Homeland Security, which has wide-ranging and essential duties, as effectively just an immigration-and-border agency. According to the Times, this was a particular source of frustration for Nielsen, whose background is in cybersecurity. In May 2018, National Security Adviser John Bolton eliminated the job of the White House’s top cybersecurity adviser. According to former Defense Secretary James Mattis, Russia once again meddled in the midterm elections six months later. Trump also bristled at the intelligence chiefs’ comments on Russia, and reportedly sought to push out Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in retaliation.
According to the Times, Nielsen convened meetings of Cabinet officials when the White House refused to do so, but those efforts ultimately foundered on the shoals of presidential antipathy as well: “One senior official described homeland security officials as adamant that the United States government needed to significantly step up its efforts to urge the American public and companies to block foreign influence campaigns. But the department was stymied by the White House’s refusal to discuss it, the official said.”
Moreover, messaging is policy and presidential attention matters—a reality that Trump understands perhaps better than most presidents. Consider the border, where Trump has focused a great deal of his attention throughout his presidency. By doing so, he has managed to elevate long-simmering questions around immigration to a central national issue. He has sent troops to the Mexican border, called up the National Guard, declared a national emergency, tried to reallocate funds to build his wall, and made numerous visits to the border.
Trump explained why in his January Oval Office address on immigration. “This is about whether we fulfill our sacred duty to the American citizens we serve,” he said. “When I took the oath of office, I swore to protect our country. And that is what I will always do, so help me God.” (In fact, Trump swore to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”)
But Trump sees tough border policy as a political winner. He sees Russian interference, meanwhile, as a political loser—and challenging it as a personal affront. Suddenly, he’s not so interested in his “sacred duty” to protect the country.