National News

Trump’s Conspicuous Silence Leaves a Struggle Against Russia Without a Leader

Posted February 17, 2018 6:26 p.m. EST
Updated February 17, 2018 6:34 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — After more than a dozen Russians and three companies were indicted Friday for interfering in the 2016 elections, President Donald Trump’s first reaction was to claim personal vindication: “The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion!” he wrote on Twitter.

He voiced no concern that a foreign power had been trying for nearly four years to upend U.S. democracy, much less resolve to stop it from continuing to do so this year.

The indictment secured by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, underscored the broader conclusion by the U.S. government that Russia is engaged in a virtual war against the United States through 21st-century tools of disinformation and propaganda, a conclusion shared by the president’s own senior advisers and intelligence chiefs. But it is a war being fought on the American side without a commander in chief.

In 13 months in office, Trump has made little if any public effort to rally the nation to confront Moscow for its intrusion or to defend democratic institutions against continued disruption. His administration has at times called out Russia or taken action, and even Trump’s national security adviser Saturday called evidence of Russian meddling “incontrovertible.” But the administration has been left to respond without the president’s leadership.

“It is astonishing to me that a president of the United States would take this so lightly or see it purely through the prism of domestic partisanship,” said Daniel Fried, a career diplomat under presidents of both parties who is now at the Atlantic Council. He said it invariably raised questions about whether Trump had something to hide. “I have no evidence that he’s deliberately pulling his punches because he has to, but I can’t dismiss it. No president has raised those kinds of questions.”

Rather than condemn Russia for its actions, Trump in the past has said he accepts the denial offered by President Vladimir Putin. Trump has not imposed new sanctions called for in a law passed by Congress last year to retaliate for the attack on America’s political system, or teamed up with European leaders to counter a common threat. He has not led a concerted effort to harden election systems in the United States with midterm congressional elections on the horizon, or pressed lawmakers to pass legislation addressing the situation.

Michael A. McFaul, an ambassador to Moscow under President Barack Obama, called Trump’s reaction to the indictments “shockingly weak” and said he should instead have criticized Putin for violating U.S. sovereignty or even announced plans to punish Moscow.

“Instead, he just focused on his own campaign,” McFaul said. “America was attacked, and our commander in chief said nothing in response. He looks weak, not only in Moscow but throughout the world.”

The president’s silence has not necessarily stopped lower levels of his administration from responding to Russian actions, sometimes going further than Obama, who was also criticized for not doing enough to counter Moscow’s threat. The Trump administration has decided to send weapons to Ukraine so it can defend itself against Russian intervention and recently imposed sanctions on more human rights violators. After Russia ordered the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to shed most of its staff, the administration responded by ordering Russia to close its consulate in San Francisco and diplomatic annexes in New York and Washington.

Likewise, in just the past few days, the Trump administration formally blamed Russia for an expansive cyberattack last year called NotPetya and threatened unspecified “international consequences.” The nation’s intelligence agency directors, including those appointed by Trump, unanimously warned in congressional testimony that Russia was already meddling in this year’s midterm elections.

Trump’s own aides readily acknowledge the reality that he does not. Besides describing Russian interference as undeniable Saturday, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, said Mueller’s charges made clear that Russia had been engaged in a “sophisticated form of espionage” against the United States.

“With the FBI indictment, the evidence is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain,” he said.

Trump has viewed reports of Russian intrusion as a threat to his legitimacy, a way for Democrats, the news media or the “deep state” to question his victory in the Electoral College over Hillary Clinton in 2016. When his Justice Department indicted the 13 Russians and three Russian entities Friday for trying to “sow discord in the U.S. political system,” the president focused on the fact that no evidence was presented that he or his campaign was knowingly involved.

On Saturday, he posted a string of Twitter messages that continued his focus on what the indictment meant for him. He approvingly cited a New York Post column calling the indictment a win for the president because it proved “the Russians had no impact on the election results” and “there was no Collusion with Trump Campaign.”

Indeed, the indictment made no assertion that the president or anyone affiliated with him did anything wrong, understandably a relief for Trump, given a year of investigation and media reports exploring the possibility of collaboration with Russia. The “information warfare against the United States,” as one Russian organization called it, started in 2014, predating Trump’s entry into the race.

But the indictment also determined that by 2016 the effort had evolved into a deliberate attempt to support Trump and disparage Clinton. And the charges against the Russians are not the end of the investigation by Mueller, nor do they mean there were no contacts or cooperation that may eventually spell legal trouble for people in the president’s orbit.

Previous legal filings and news accounts have documented multiple contacts between Trump’s team and Russians in 2016. Among them was a June 2016 meeting hosted by Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son; Jared Kushner, his son-in-law; and Paul J. Manafort, his campaign chairman, on the promise that Russian visitors would provide incriminating information about Clinton as part of the Russian government’s support of the elder Trump.

The charges against the Russians documented an elaborate scheme to use social media to provoke distrust of the system by creating online personas for fictitious U.S. activists and stealing identities, an operation sophisticated enough to focus on “purple states” that would be battlegrounds between Trump and Clinton.

The findings bolstered the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies, which for more than a year have said that Russia interfered in the election, a determination that Trump has occasionally accepted but more often dismissed as a “hoax.” Only in a written statement that aides issued in his name after his tweet Friday was any concern expressed about the Russian attack described in the indictment, and then only to urge his critics to stop questioning him. “We cannot allow those seeking to sow confusion, discord and rancor to be successful,” the statement said. “It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions. We must unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections.”

Trump’s position stood in contrast to that of fellow Republicans who responded to the indictment with calls for tougher action against Russia. To many, the president’s reaction once again raised the question of why he would go easy on Moscow. He has spoken about Putin in generally flattering or friendly terms and avoided any direct criticism even during moments of enormous stress in the relationship between the two countries.

For the moment, the government is left to act without the president. Jeh C. Johnson, a secretary of homeland security under Obama, said the best way to stop Russia from interfering in the future is the threat of a powerful response. “When it comes to cyberattacks, it will always be easier to be on offense than defense,” he said. “But when it comes to cyberattacks between nation-states, the most effective defense is to simply make the offensive behavior cost-prohibitive.”

But the best way to do that, experts said, is for the president to lead the way. “The U.S. government cannot mobilize an effective strategy without White House leadership and prioritization,” said Heather A. Conley, a State Department official under President George W. Bush who testified at a Senate hearing in the past week on defending against Russian interference. Despite the warnings by the intelligence chiefs and the threat detailed in the indictment, she said, “there continues to be no policy message or response, leaving our country unprotected and vulnerable.”

John P. Carlin, a former assistant attorney general for national security and chief of staff to Mueller when he was FBI director, said the president’s silence sent a message to Russia and the world.

“I think it does have consequences,” he said. The U.S. government can warn against further interference, but “it would be better if it gets driven by the commander in chief. The goal is to drive a clear message that says the United States and our allies throughout the world that share our values are drawing a line that says ‘Stop, this is unacceptable.'”