No, it wasn’t a slip of the tongue.
The problem wasn’t that President Donald Trump said “would” instead of “wouldn’t” during his Monday news conference alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, as he weighed the U.S. intelligence agencies’ evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election against Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial, as he put it.
It was the false equivalence Trump created between Putin’s lies and the findings of U.S. agencies. He took a foreign despot’s word over the painstaking work of America’s intelligence community, the people we trust to protect our democracy.
It was his failure to call out Putin to his face, in front of the world, on this unacceptable attack on our country’s elections.
It was his peddling of conspiracy theories, his fixation on a “missing” Democratic Party server that was never missing and his insinuations about a “Pakistani gentleman” who investigators have determined didn’t steal or leak any computer data. It was his continued insistence the U.S. inquiry into Russian meddling constitutes “a witch hunt.” It was his ludicrous claim that America’s relationship with Russia has suffered because of “U.S. foolishness and stupidity.”
There are plenty of legitimate reasons why U.S.-Russia relations have suffered. Russia brazenly pushed its self-interest over international order with its unlawful annexation of Crimea, invasion of Ukraine and poisoning of people on British soil. And the evidence of its interference in our 2016 election is overwhelming.
As far back as January 2017, U.S. intelligence agencies have publicly asserted Putin ordered the Russian influence campaign in our presidential election, a finding echoed by the Senate and House intelligence committees. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation, which has already led to the indictments of 32 people and three companies, last week provided a detailed trail of the electronic breadcrumbs left by a dozen Russian agents accused of hacking Trump’s political opponents and releasing the information for his benefit.
In his meeting with Putin, Trump failed the most basic job requirement of his high office. He didn’t stand up for America.
The half-hearted backpedaling Tuesday didn’t change that. Sure, he acknowledged in prepared remarks from the White House, “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place.”
But, he couldn’t resist giving Russia cover, adding, “Could be other people, also. A lot of people out there.”
We don’t understand Trump’s compulsion to give comfort to geopolitical foes like Russia while spurning longtime U.S. allies in Europe. But we recognize the danger this poses to American interests.
The president’s conduct this week baffled and repulsed many members of his own party who swiftly criticized his comments. It’s time for them to back up their words with deeds.
Congress must reclaim its rightful role as a check on presidential power. Most urgently, it should create political pressure and provide funding for U.S. agencies to disrupt any Russian efforts to meddle in the midterm elections this fall — a very real threat that U.S. agencies have warned about. The Senate has included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act prodding the president to direct this kind of proactive, coordinated cybersecurity action. The House of Representatives should follow suit.
This action is all the more critical because Trump’s own agencies announced in March that Russians had successfully hacked into the U.S. power grid and posed a threat to other systems touching the everyday lives of millions of Americans. Yet, inexplicably, the Trump administration in May eliminated the top cybersecurity coordinator position at the White House. Congress should conduct hearings to examine America’s readiness to protect the country from hacking threats posed by Russia, North Korea, Iran and other rogue actors.
Congress should also send a clear signal that those who interfered in the 2016 election will be held accountable. It should pass a law ensuring Mueller is able to complete his investigation and present his findings to Congress. While it may be a largely symbolic gesture, lawmakers should also call for the extradition of the Russian conspirators who have been indicted as part of Mueller’s investigation.
The president’s shocking display this week of deference to Russia drew a line in the sand for all Americans. It’s been his habit to demand complete loyalty from GOP lawmakers, but they recognize moments that call for serving country above party. Both chambers voted overwhelmingly last year to impose sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2016 election, showing veto-proof majorities are attainable when national security is at stake.
We are encouraged to see U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to testify next week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the administration’s stance toward Russia. But, we deserve to know more. We hope Republicans will join Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and other Democrats calling for Trump’s interpreter to testify before Congress on the president’s lengthy closed-door meeting with Putin.
Trump rose to office amid a drumbeat of “America First,” but his actions toward Russia serve his own ego and leave our country vulnerable to future attacks.
It’s time for Congress to truly put America First.