On Russian meddling, Obama choked when the chips were down

     Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, listens to U.S. President Barack Obama in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province, Monday, Sept. 5, 2016. (Alexei Druzhinin/ Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, file)

    Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, listens to U.S. President Barack Obama in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province, Monday, Sept. 5, 2016. (Alexei Druzhinin/ Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, file)

    The American people deserved to know — early last autumn, before the presidential balloting — that Vladimir Putin had specifically ordered Russian hackers to help elect Donald Trump. They deserved to know the truth, to have the fullest possible accounting, in order to cast informed votes.

    But they were kept in the dark — by President Obama.

    Check out The Washington Post’s detailed recap of the Obama team’s backstage deliberations — its anemic vacillations — even though it’s way too sickening and sobering to qualify as a beach read. It is, however, a valuable historical document, a veritable American tragedy, a profile in cowardice.

    The CIA told the White House, early last August, that Putin was assaulting our democracy, meddling for Trump — the electoral equivalent of planes being flown into skyscrapers — but the Obama team essentially decided, for lack of deciding anything, that America’s voters didn’t have the right to be treated as fully informed citizens. As one senior Obama official told the newspaper, “I feel like we sort of choked.”

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    Obama brought a water pistol to a gunfight. History will judge him accordingly.

    We’ve known for months that Obama was reluctant to sound the alarm on Putin-Trump prior to the election — fearing that he’d look like he was putting his thumb on the scale for Hillary — but the Post’s expose adds valuable nuance. Obama was worried last summer that if he went public with Putin’s meddling, it “would be perceived as political interference in any already volatile campaign. By August, Trump was predicting that the election would be rigged. Obama officials feared providing fuel to such claims, playing into Russia’s efforts to discredit the outcome …”

    In fact, Obama confirmed that reporting six months ago, during his last presidential news conference. He said that if he’d sounded the alarm before the election, “it would have become immediately just one more political scrum.”

    Um, hello? The ’16 campaign was already a massive political scrum — just like every campaign dating back to 1800 — and it was made worse by Obama’s decision to withold vital information. Voters heard Trump’s claims that the race was being “rigged” against him, but they didn’t know that Putin had specifically ordered Russian hackers to rig the race for him.

    Obama’s whiff was a failure of presidential leadership. It was his job to warn the public of an unprecedented assault by a foreign adversary. Let Trump and the Republicans call it “partisan.” He could’ve simply ignored their rhetoric, and asserted that his defense of our democratic process was above politics. He had the creds to do it; according to the polls, he was more popular than Hillary, and far more popular than Trump and the congressional Republicans.

    Instead, as the Post story recounts, he decided to “seek bipartisan support from congressional leaders for a statement condemning Moscow.” What a joke. Obama couldn’t get bipartisan support from Republicans to open a post office. So naturally, Mitch McConnell refused to help, and warned the White House that if Obama went public, he’d retaliate by attacking Obama as a Hillary partisan. Which is what Republicans were already doing anyway.

    I love this line in the Post story: “Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.” Yes, key Democrats were right to be exasperated by Obama’s inexplicable willingness to indulge the usual suspects, but how is it possible that key Democrats could still be “stunned” by GOP obstructionism? Even after eight years, Obama and the Democrats still didn’t know how to fight.

    And so, on Oct. 7, when U.S. spy agencies released semi-vague statement about Russia’s “active measures,” it did so without the president’s imprimatur. The story recounts: “With Obama still determined to avoid any appearance of politics, the statement would not carry his signature.” Which meant, of course, that the voters were denied the opportunity to explore for themselves the most important political question of all: Why does Vladimir Putin want Trump to win this race?

    It’s the Republicans who know how to fight. Ask yourself what would’ve happened if the situation had been reversed, if a lame-duck Republican president had learned that Putin was orchestrating an assault on our democracy in the hopes of electing the Democratic candidate. Do we think for a millisecond that the Republican president would fear being tagged as a “partisan”? As someone who was trying to put a thumb on the scale for his Republican successor?

    Not a chance. A Republican president would’ve owned the partisanship and gone public with something like this: “My fellow Americans, it’s my duty to inform you that our most dangerous foreign adversary is engineering an unprecedented assault on our sacred election, trying to tilt it to the Democratic candidate. Putin is trying to sow chaos and undermine our faith in democracy. Don’t let him do it. Now that you’re armed with the fullest possible information, I trust you will vote for the party that will keep us strong and keep our most dangerous enemies at bay.”

    Obama didn’t have the requisite guts to play it that way.

    Brian Fallon, a former Obama Justice Department official, told CNN three months ago: “Of course, in retrospect, I might wish more had been done.”

    Don’t we all.

    Meanwhile, did you catch Trump this morning on Twitter? He thumbed: “The real story is that President Obama did NOTHING after being informed in August about Russian meddling.”

    This is the same guy who — just a few days ago — dismissed the Russian meddling as “a big Dem HOAX!”

    So at least he has finally copped to the truth.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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