America now ponders two remarkable questions. First, did a presidential candidate compromise our interests in exchange for electoral help from a foreign adversary? Second, once elected, did he obstruct justice in order to conceal his disloyalty?
We must have answers. But, for the moment, let’s consider what we already know: how assiduously America’s president serves Russia’s interests.
During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump’s praise of Vladimir Putin evoked the slavish sycophancy of a Soviet-era puppet.
Putin, he told us, “has eaten Obama’s lunch”; “done an amazing job of taking the mantle”; and deserved “a lot of credit” for intervening in the Ukraine. Dismissing the Russian government’s murders of dissidents and journalists, he asserted that “our country does a lot of killing also...”
As president now, Trump is equally servile. At the G-20 summit, after Trump neglected a state dinner to seek a one-hour tete-a-tete with Putin, he crowed about forming a joint cybersecurity plan with the very nation that hacked America’s elections. At times ― as when he called to thank Putin for praising Trump’s economic stewardship ― he grovels for rhetorical crumbs.
But Trump’s servitude is also substantive. He slights our allies and alliances, furthering Putin’s hopes of dividing the West. He ignores European concerns about Russian intrusion in their own elections. He airbrushes Russia’s invasion or harassment of its neighbors. He countenances Russia’s participation in Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian slaughter. His indifference to human rights mimes Putin’s. He has become the principal geopolitical asset of America’s foremost global adversary.
Trump’s cardinal service is his relentless facilitation of Putin’s efforts to subvert America’s electoral and legal institutions. In 2016, Russia caused the release of hacked emails calculated to help Trump and damage Hillary Clinton; disseminated a tsunami of fake news, calculated to influence the election, for which Robert Mueller has now formally indicted Russian nationals and companies; and probed election-related computer systems in numerous states. Yet Russia continues to escalate such attacks both here and abroad, advancing Putin’s resolve to discredit Western democracy.
Any other president would educate America about the threat we face, and rally our resources to thwart it.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has helped him. In January 2017, our intelligence agencies briefed Trump on their unanimous conclusion that Putin had directed Russia’s attack on our election ― revealing Putin’s specific instructions. Trump responded by telling aides that our intelligence agencies could not be trusted, and that their findings were a “trap.”
Worse, he has defended Putin’s pusillanimous denials and attacked the institutions charged with investigating Russia’s actions. He demeaned the heads of our intelligence agencies as “political hacks”. He insists that the intelligence assessment is a “hoax” and a “scam” ― a “Democratic hit job” fabricated to place “an artificial barrier” between America and Russia.
Similarly, he called the FBI a biased organization whose reputation was “in tatters.” He repeatedly assails leaders of the Bureau and the Department of Justice. Most recently, he used the cherry-picked Nunes memo to claim that the Russian investigation was politically motivated ― leading Sen. John McCain to warn that “we are doing Putin’s job for him.”
Here Trump excels. A February Reuters poll found that 73 percent of Republicans believe that the FBI and DOJ are “working to delegitimize Trump through politically motivated investigations”; that 55 percent of all Americans believe that the Obama administration “improperly surveilled the Trump campaign during the 2016 election; and 35 percent believe that senior officials at the FBI and DOJ “knowingly coordinated to frame the president with allegations of Russian collusion...”
More broadly, a survey by a consortium of political scientists shows that in Trump’s first year, public faith in our institutions dramatically declined. Among the casualties is a fundamental belief in our democracy.
Adamantly, Trump has opposed punishing Russia for undermining our election. When Congress reacted to this curious behavior by passing sanctions with near-unanimity, Trump refused to enforce them. His surreal excuse? That their existence on paper is deterrent enough.
Hardly. In mid-February our four top intelligence officials ― the directors of the CIA, FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Intelligence Agency ― warned that Russia means to repeat its interference in 2018 by again hacking our electoral systems and using fake news to aggravate America’s political and social divisions. Concurrently, Russia has launched a social media onslaught in support of Trump’s attacks on law enforcement.
Mueller’s 37-page indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian companies has now exposed the resources Russia deploys to subvert our political process like never before. In 2016 Russian operatives infiltrated the U.S.; recruited unwitting Americans, posed as political activists; used American emails and bank accounts; organized events and churned out fake news calculated divide Americans; and targeted specific locations and demographic groups. Overall, Russia spent millions of dollars and utilized hundreds of agents. This multi-pronged operation on American soil had one unifying purpose ― to help Donald Trump become our president.
Now he is.
Mueller’s indictment finally forced Trump to acknowledge, elliptically and grudgingly, the reality of Russian interference in 2016. But he uttered no condemnation and took no action. Instead, he used the the same ugly and diversionary tweets to deny his previous denials of Russia’s activities; attack Democrats and the FBI; assert that the Russia investigation had distracted the Bureau from pursuing a tip about the Florida school shooter; and rebuke his own National Security Advisor for calling the indictment “incontrovertible” without parroting Trump’s mendacious talking points. Once again Trump’s chosen enemy was not Russia, but the agencies and individuals striving to protect the integrity of our elections.
Most disturbing, Trump still has done nothing to combat Russian cyberattacks or fake news campaigns ― let alone punish Russia for its brazen assault in 2016. Any other president would educate America about the threat we face, and rally our resources to thwart it. Instead, this president’s advisers fear that raising the subject will enrage him. Daily, Trump undermines our institutions and undoes our defenses ― encouraging Russia to escalate its assault.
The most basic obligation of a president is to defend American democracy against attack. Trumps failure to do so is an inexcusable act of dereliction and disloyalty.
But, to Trump, loyalty is owed to him alone ― excepting, apparently, his affinity for Putin. Offended by Democrats’ non-response to his State of the Union, Trump suggested that this was “treason.”
As ever, he personifies projection.
Richard North Patterson is the New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.