As the rest of America mourns the victims of the Parkland, Florida, massacre, President Trump took to Twitter.
Not for him the rituals of grief. He is too consumed by rage and resentment. He interrupted his holidaying schedule at Mar-a-Lago only briefly, for a visit to a hospital where some of the shooting victims were treated. He posed afterward for a grinning thumbs-up photo op. Pain for another’s heartbreak—that emotion is for losers, apparently.
Having failed at one presidential duty, to speak for the nation at times of national tragedy, Trump resumed shirking an even more supreme task: defending the nation against foreign attack.
Last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian persons and three entities that conspired to violate federal election law, to the benefit of Trump and Republican congressional candidates. This is not the whole of the story by any means. This Mueller indictment references only Russian operations on Facebook. It does not deal with the weaponization of hacked information via WikiLeaks. Or the reports that the Russians funneled millions of dollars of election spending through the NRA’s political action committees. But this indictment does show enough to answer some questions about the scale and methods of the Russian intervention—and pose a new question, the most important of them all.
The new question is this: What has been—what will be—done to protect American democracy from such attacks in the future? The Russian attack in 2016 worked, yielding dividends beyond Vladimir Putin’s wildest hopes. The Russians hoped to cast a shadow over the Clinton presidency. Instead, they outright elected their preferred candidate. Americans once thought it was a big deal that Alger Hiss rose to serve as acting temporary secretary general of the United Nations. This time, a Russian-backed individual was installed in the Oval Office.
From that position of power, Trump has systematically attempted to shut down investigations of the foreign-espionage operation that operated on his behalf. He fired the director of the FBI to shut it down. His White House coordinated with the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee to misdirect the investigation. He mobilized the speaker of the House to thwart bipartisan investigations under broadly respected leadership. He has inspired, supported, and joined a national propaganda campaign against the Mueller investigation.
And all the while, Trump has done nothing—literally nothing—to harden the nation’s voting systems against follow-up Russian operations. On Sunday, he publicly repudiated his own national-security adviser for acknowledging at the Munich Security Conference the most incontrovertible basics of what happened in 2016.
It’s worth thinking about what a patriotic president would have done in Trump’s situation. He would be leading the investigation himself. He would be scouring his own campaign—doing everything in his power to reassure the country that whatever the Russians may or may not have done, his government owed Putin nothing. He would have imposed penalties on Russia for their outrageous acts—rather than protecting Russia from penalties voted by Congress. Above all, he would be leading the demand for changes to election laws and practices, including holding Facebook to account for its negligence.
At every turn, Trump has failed to do what a patriotic president would do—failed to put the national interest first. He has left the 2018 elections as vulnerable as the 2016 elections to Russian intervention on his behalf.
The president’s malignant narcissism surely explains much of this passivity. He cannot endure the thought that he owes the presidency to anything other than his own magnificence. “But wasn’t I a great candidate?” he tweeted plaintively at 7:43 a.m on Sunday morning.
But Americans who cherish democracy and national sovereignty need to start discussing a bigger and darker question.
Authoritarian nationalist parties across the western world have outright cooperated with the Russians. Russian money has helped to finance the National Front in France, and the election and reelection of the president of the Czech Republic. In Germany, Russia first created a hoax refugee-rape case—then widely publicized it—in an effort to boost its preferred extremist party in that country’s 2017 election, the Alternative for Germany. Russia supported pro-AfD comment in media favored by Germany’s surprisingly substantial Russian-speaking communities.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo predicted to the BBC at the beginning of 2018 that Russia “will be back” to help its preferred candidates in November 2018. To what extent does President Trump—to what extent do congressional Republicans—look to Russian interference to help their party in the 2018 cycle?
Most observers predict a grim year for the GOP in 2018. But the economy is strong, and selective tax cuts are strategically redistributing money from blue-state professionals to red-state parents. The Republican National Committee commands a huge financial advantage over its Democratic counterpart. (Things look more equal at the level of the individual candidates.) A little extra help could make a big difference to Republican hopes—and to Trump’s political survival.
Nothing has been done in the past 15 months to prevent that help from flowing. You have to wonder whether the president does not privately welcome that help, as he publicly welcomed help from WikiLeaks in the summer of 2016.
Trump’s own tweets reveal that among the things he most fears is the prospect of Representative Adam Schiff gaining the gavel of the House Intelligence Committee from the clownish present chairman, Devin Nunes. How far would Trump go to stop a dreaded political opponent, inside the law and outside? How far has Donald Trump gone in the past?
Trump continues to insist that he and his campaign team did not collude with Russia in the 2016 election. We know that they were ready and eager to collude—that’s on the public record. (“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”) The public does not yet know whether the collusion actually occurred, and if so, in what form and to what extent. But in front of our very eyes we can observe that they are leaving the door open to Russian intervention on their behalf in the next election. You might call it collusion in advance—a dereliction of duty as grave as any since President Buchanan looked the other way as Southern state governments pillaged federal arsenals on the eve of the Civil War.