June 25, 2017–The alternatives were to give a televised speech from behind his desk in the Oval Office, announcing a series of measures to counter Russian political intervention, warning American citizens a foreign nation–was Putin a friend?–had meddled in the 2016 election–or to take quiet action (much earlier, covertly) to make it plain to Moscow that its actions were counterproductive. Doing nothing was not an option. That or anything else was a variant of what has appeared here several times in the past, in connection with the U.S. intelligence chiefs–that putting out the weak-kneed, diffident “statements” or “reports” that they did, was worse.
Fingering the Russians but including only generic palaver about computer hacking or remotely related data about RT News only made it harder to achieve the clarity that might have stood Putin down. Today’s Washington Post (“Obama’s Secret Struggle to Retaliate Against Putin’s Election Assault,” by Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous, June 25, 2017) shows precisely why. When briefed by CIA director John Brennan, Republican figures on Capitol Hill chose to play partisan politics. Some made themselves unavailable to be briefed. Others asked why they should believe CIA when the U.S. intelligence community as a whole was nowhere to be seen on this. Brennan, who had cut his agency loose from oversight in the torture controversy (read about this in detail in my forthcoming book The Ghosts of Langley), had only himself to blame. It would be cuttingly mordant that only the Democrats, whom Brennan had spurned, stood up to defend our country. On September 22, 2016 Senator Dianne Feinstein–Brennan’s direct target–and Representative Adam B. Schiff jointly told the public that Russia was conducting a campaign to undermine the U.S. election. Republicans scoffed.
On October 7 followed a statement from Homeland security director Jeh Johnson and director of national intelligence James Clapper asserting Russian intervention, but in terms even more vague. Johnson, with FBI director James Comey and White House counterterrorism director Lisa Monaco, had already failed to convince Hill denizens at an August briefing. Johnson had failed again when reaching out to state election directors in September. The conventional wisdom about the October 7 joint statement has already settled in: that it was wiped out by the revelation just hours later of Donald J. Trump’s misanthropy as proven by videotapes taken by a television show on which he had appeared. But the joint statement on the Russian Caper fell due to its own lack of weight. Johnson was batting with two strikes against him already. Clapper had a reputation as a liar, established by his perjury when asked if the National Security Agency were conducting blanket surveillance of Americans. In my opinion, Clapper was also the “Fearful Leader,” a Chicken Little continuously warning the sky was falling. Republicans could fairly dispute whether the full intelligence community agreed with these charges against Russia. The FBI, indeed, had pulled out of the joint statement at the last moment, inviting the question of where were the others.
Republican candidate Donald J. Trump had publicly invited the Russians to hack America in hopes of finding emails from Hillary Clinton he claimed still existed. Some moves of Trump campaign figures were known at the time, including the Moscow trips of associates Michael Flynn and Carter Page; the fact of pro-Moscow alternations to the party platform at the July 2016 convention; and the Trump speech at the Mayflower Hotel in April, which added to a mounting pile of public statements in which the candidate praised Vladimir Putin or else Russia more generally. Republicans took this as their cue, overturning decades of Republican Party hostility to Russia–and the Soviet Union before it. They put on blinders and earbuds when confronted with evidence of Russian election tampering.
President Barack Obama’s key moment came then. With Republicans actively denying the Russian Caper, the question became what to do about the election. Mr. Obama had taken Putin aside at a diplomatic conference in China in September to warn him against interfering. He repeated the warning in a message given to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak at the White House just as Johnson and Clapper put out their joint statement. Obama may have thought of this as moving on multiple fronts, but the truth is that Republican deniers robbed the diplomatic protest of any power it might have had. On October 28, when FBI director Comey announced he was reopening the Bureau’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, inflicting grave political damage on the Democratic Party candidate, it became even more incumbent on President Obama to act. Obama is widely reported to have feared any open presidential intervention in the electoral politics. In 1968, faced with the analogous situation of evidence obtained of a Republican “October Surprise,” a Nixon campaign deal with South Vietnam to throw that election, President Lyndon B. Johnson also chose to do nothing in public. Perhaps Obama emulated LBJ. Instead he went out on the hustings, Michele Obama too, in a whirlwind of campaign appearances over the last days. Obama could have taken to the air waves with an Oval Office address warning Americans their election had been influenced by outside forces. He chose not to do that.
Barack Obama’s biggest problem as president, for all his achievements, was to lack the courage of his convictions. From letting the generals talk him out of the Afghan withdrawal he had set as a condition of their “surge,” to imposing a “red line” in Syria and then failing to enforce it, to dictating a new secrecy policy and then letting the agencies run roughed over it, again and again this president compromised short of his own goals. Obama’s holding back in the 2017 election may prove to be his greatest error.