Why do reporters keep asking President Trump whether he accepts that Russia interfered in the 2016 election? The shortest answer is that he keeps giving interesting answers. During a press conference in Warsaw Thursday, NBC’s Hallie Jackson asked the question once more.
On its face, Trump’s rambling answer was almost incoherent, or at least, self-contradictory. Read closely, however, it illuminates a pattern. When Trump wants to rebut a charge, he seldom flatly denies it. Instead, he generally prefers to sow doubt, skillfully stressing uncertainties to obfuscate and muddy the issue.
In the case of Jackson’s question in Warsaw, Trump he starts off by half-heartedly accepting the premise, then quickly moving to undermine it by injecting the possibility of other actors. Notably, he doesn’t name them, presumably because he has no evidence. Then he finishes with an indisputably true statement—lots of countries interfere in elections—which seems to cast doubt even though it’s actually irrelevant to the question at hand:
I think it was Russia, and I think it could have been other people in other countries. It could have been a lot of people. I said it very simply. I think it could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries. I won’t be specific. I think a lot of people interfere. I think it’s been happening for a long time, it’s been happing for many, many years.
Trump’s next move is to divert attention to another supposed culprit: his hated predecessor.
The thing I have to mention is that Barack Obama when he was president found out about this, in terms of if it were Russia, found out about in August. The election was in November. That’s a lot of time he did nothing about it. Why did he do nothing about it? He was told it was Russia by the CIA, as I understood it, it was well reported, and he did nothing about it. They say he choked. I don’t think he choked. I think what happened is he thought Hillary Clinton was going to win the election and he said let’s not do anything about it. Had he thought the other way, he would have done something about it.
This is a rich farrago of truth, misdirection, and hand-waving. He starts off with a valid point: Obama did know about Russian interference, and he was notably slow to act. It’s not quite true that he did nothing about it. Obama scolded Russian President Vladimir Putin (apparently ineffectually) during a sidelines meeting in September, and reportedly also delivered a stern message on October 31. But overall, Trump is right that Obama made few major gestures, and multiple reports have suggested that’s because the president believed Clinton would win and didn’t want to be seen as meddling politically to assist her. Trump sets up Obama “choking” as somehow separate from his faith that Clinton would win, when they are in fact one in the same. Note, however, how Trump once again subtly injects doubt about Russia’s role: “in terms of if it were Russia.”