Donald Trump didn’t have any control over the decision by Russia’s Internet Research Agency to mount what it called “information warfare against the United States of America.” As the indictment released on Friday stated, the effort began in 2014, long before Trump was a declared candidate—much less a serious one—for office.
But by refusing to take information warfare seriously—in an attempt to distance himself from it and any questions it might raise about the legitimacy of his election—the president has paradoxically made the story about himself again and again.
This solipsism was on display Saturday and Sunday morning, as Trump, at Mar-a-Lago and far from the strictures and structures of the White House, unleashed his most aggressive and scattered tweetstorm in some time. In theory, the things he said were designed to push the story away from himself and downplay any connection. In practice, he forced himself into the middle of the story, inextricably linking himself to it.
Over a series of tweets, Trump attacked the FBI; politicized the Parkland shooting for his own vindication; suggested collusion was no big deal; blamed Obama for the collusion; and said the real collusion involved Hillary Clinton. He undermined his national-security adviser; lied about denying that Russia meddled in the election; and finished with an appeal to numbers, citing an infamously unreliable pollster.
The whole series of tweets is too long to reproduce, but a few are worth noting:
Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign - there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2018
This came just hours after the president met with victims and first responders from the Parkland shooting. The FBI clearly erred in this case, as it has acknowledged; there’s also no reason to believe it couldn’t both follow up on tips in Florida and investigate Russian interference. This missive represents yet another case of the president pressuring the FBI to drop an active criminal investigation.
I never said Russia did not meddle in the election, I said “it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer.” The Russian “hoax” was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia - it never did!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2018
This is misleading. Trump refers to a statement he made during the general election, but at multiple points since then he has denied Russian meddling outright. In February 2017, he tweeted, “Russia talk is FAKE NEWS put out by the Dems, and played up by the media, in order to mask the big election defeat and the illegal leaks!” He has worked to sow doubt about it. In November 2017, he made a hair-splitting comment, saying Vladimir Putin denied interference and adding, “I believe, I really believe that when he tells me that he means it.”
Rather than stick to a single, coherent message, the president is trying out several contradictory ones. It cannot be true that the collusion is no big deal and also that Obama was negligent in handling it and also that the Clinton campaign colluded in worrisome ways:
General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. Remember the Dirty Dossier, Uranium, Speeches, Emails and the Podesta Company!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2018
And as his recourse to poll data indicates, Trump also does not differentiate between domestic politics and the national interest, nor between his own interest and the national interest. With Friday’s indictment now public—detailing copious information about the troll game to interfere with the election—National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster called the evidence of Russian meddling “incontrovertible.”
McMaster offered Trump a way out: acknowledge and condemn the Russian action, say it’s an affront to America, and move on. He could also lie low, and let the indictment speak for itself. This is not what Trump has done, though. The official White House statement on the indictment focused instead on claiming, misleadingly, that it vindicated the Trump campaign of collusion with Russia. (The collusion allegations center elsewhere, away from the troll operation.) With his furious, contradictory denials, Trump focuses attention on himself, and raises questions about why he is unwilling to acknowledge what his own top aide calls incontrovertible evidence. By insisting on conflating attacks from Russia with the legitimacy of his electoral victory, he in fact only raises more questions about the latter, without debunking the former.
Trump and McMaster differ on another important point. Speaking about the Russian campaign in Munich on Saturday, McMaster dismissed its efficacy. “It’s just not working,” he said. Trump disagreed:
If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos within the U.S. then, with all of the Committee Hearings, Investigations and Party hatred, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They are laughing their asses off in Moscow. Get smart America!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2018
The president has the more credible argument here. The U.S. is obviously deeply divided over Russian interference, and Trump continues to play a central role in ensuring that remains the case.