Donald Trump is right.
Or at least he raised the right question Friday when he tweeted: “Just out: The Obama Administration knew far in advance of November 8th about election meddling by Russia. Did nothing about it. WHY?”
He was referring to the newly published Washington Post expose, “Obama’s secret struggle to punish Russia for Putin election assault.”
Underline the word “secret.” Because last August, when a CIA courier delivered an “eyes only” envelope to the Oval Office, detailing how Vladimir Putin personally ordered Russian intelligence to “disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential election race” in order to “defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump” Obama sprang into inaction, riding out of office on the same skittish horse of deliberation and restraint he had ridden in on.
Or, as one administration official put it: “We sort of choked.”
Even the goal — punish Russia for cyber meddling in the election — ignored the fact that it was still going on, a concerted campaign of disinformation and targeted leaks. It was a like a fire department pulling up in front of a burning building and busying itself investigating the cause of the fire and trying to punish the arsonist without bothering to first put out the flames raging in front of them.
There was a reason for this. Obama did not, when reacting to one outsider meddling with the election, want to interfere with it himself. Though this concern was misplaced; he was the president, he belonged. He wouldn’t be meddling but merely doing what outgoing presidents do.
The truth — to return to Trump’s echoing question of “WHY?” — is that Obama was worried about, as the Post put it, “potentially contaminating the expected Clinton triumph.” A petty political consideration, a blend of complacency and cowardice. This is symbolic of our embarrassing national era. Decisions are purely political, with the interests of the country pushed to a distant second, if that. We’d rather blame each other for failure than take the risks needed for success.
Obama should have addressed the nation, sounded the alarm, laid out the situation, and let the chips fall where they may. We are supposedly a transparent system, he should have been transparent. Just as Clinton’s seven-second delay, her eternal caution, turned off the chunk of the electorate sick of politicians, so Obama’s careful process allowed the election of a mendacious amateur whose first five months have been a comic opera of epic incompetence.
One aspect of Trump’s tweet shouldn’t be glossed over. Up to Friday, the idea of Russian meddling was, in Trump’s words, “a scam” and “a big Dem HOAX!” He slid directly from denying its existence to blaming it on his predecessor, a nimble 180-degree pivot that isn’t even noticed in the frictionless, fact-free world that our president inhabits.
There is a valuable lesson here for Democrats, who have lost several highly contested congressional races since Trump’s election. Get in the game. Less temperature taking, more risk-taking. In other words: stand for something. Be leaders.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. The latest example being the Senate’s health care bill, a $1 trillion wealth transfer from the poorest Americans to the richest, slashing the medical care of the former and the taxes of the latter. The people who stand to lose the most are so mesmerized by the Trump show, and content with the chin music the GOP plays for them, they don’t notice the cliff they’re being tossed off. The Democrats should be screaming about it.
Not that the Democrats must become insecure egotists pouring forth a septic stream of indignant, contradictory blather on Twitter. But caution is not their friend. More plain talk and damn-the-torpedoes action, less lets-form-a-committee caution if they ever hope to make the Trump administration the hard bottom our nation bounces up from, and not the prelude to a “Hunger Games” dystopia where Trump is merely the first in a series of sneering tyrants who lead our country away from its supposed ideals and into a hall of mirrors from which we can never escape.