December 13 2016
For most of his two terms in office, President Obama has downplayed the threat of Russia, famously deriding the warnings of Governor Mitt Romney during a 2012 presidential campaign debate with the line: “The Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
Then, last month, Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election to Donald Trump. Suddenly, Obama and his fellow Democrats have recast Russia, with its hackers, as the supreme villain of the hour — the Ultimate Deplorable, putting its thumb deliberately on the scale for Trump.
Not that Obama has released the intelligence assessment on which this latest narrative is based. Instead, the story broke last Friday in the Washington Post, sourced to anonymous officials, that:
“The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency.”
A White House spokesman confirmed that Obama has urgently ordered up from the intelligence community “a full review of the pattern of malicious cyber activity related to our presidential election cycle,” to be submitted to Obama before the end of his term — or, to put it another way, before Trump takes office — Jan. 20.
In trying to divine Russia’s intent, the CIA reportedly based its conclusion on the disparity of hackers releasing a trove of Democratic emails embarrassing to the Clinton campaign, but sparing the Trump campaign.
Whatever the hackers meant to do, it’s hard to see what the Trump campaign could have done about it, short of releasing all their own emails in hope they might be equally embarrassing (though some might suggest Trump’s Twitter feed was a pretty good proxy).
Nonetheless, the leaked CIA findings, lit up in neon by Obama’s demand for a full review, have touched off a furor in which, as a Monday editorial in The Wall Street Journal put it:
“What should really distress Americans is that the losers are trying to overturn the election results based on little more than anonymous leaks and innuendo.”
There have been press reports that the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence disagree with the CIA’s conclusion that Russia meant to help Trump. The administration has provided no evidence that any intervention by Russia actually threw the U.S. election. But that is the White-House-led implication now dogging Trump’s victory.
The strange inversion here is that to whatever extent the Kremlin dipped its claws into the U.S. election campaigns, it’s not Trump who deserves scrutiny. It’s Obama.
While it behooves political parties to tend to their cyber-security, it is not the job of presidential candidates — whether Trump or Clinton — to deter Russian aggression and defend America’s democracy against Kremlin plots. That’s the job of the sitting president and his administration.
Which brings me to Obama’s odd sidelining right now of Russia itself.
Obama’s dire concerns about Russian meddling would be more convincing were he taking swift action to deter and punish Russians. He appears more interested in damaging President-elect Trump. On Friday the New York Times reported that the CIA and National Security Agency “have identified individual Russians they believe were responsible. But none have been publicly penalized.”
This omission caps almost eight years in which Obama has variously excused, denied, ignored or backed down before the predations of Putin’s Russia. When Obama took office, in 2009, he blamed chilly Russian-U.S. relations not on Putin and his military adventures in the former Soviet state of Georgia, but on President George W. Bush.
Obama courted Putin by shelving plans for missile defense in Eastern Europe and dispatching then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to present Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a juvenile (and mislabeled) “reset” button.
During the U.S. presidential campaign year of 2012, Obama was caught unawares on a live microphone in Seoul, telling Russia’s placeholder president, Dmitry Medvedev, that he needed some “space” from Putin, but only till after the U.S. vote:
“This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”
In 2013, Putin delivered Obama a public slap in the face by giving asylum to American turncoat Edward Snowden, with his haul of National Security Agency secrets. Obama never got around to forcing Putin to render up Snowden.
Rather, in a pivot to Syria, Obama displayed some of that promised flexibility, disavowing his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria by way of turning over the problem to Putin.
When Obama was asked in a Feb. 2014 interview with NBC whether his relationship with Putin had turned “icy,” Obama shrugged it off, saying Putin had always treated him “with the utmost respect,” and “there’s a surprising amount of humor, and a lot of give and take.”
The following month, over U.S. objections, Putin annexed Crimea, and went to work trying to violently destabilize the rest of Ukraine. While that was going on, Obama welcomed Russia’s presence at the Iran nuclear talks. The resulting nuclear deal allowed terror-sponsoring Iran access to a vastly enhanced flow of wealth, billions of which Iran is now preparing to spend on Russian weapons.
In response to Putin’s territorial grabs in Ukraine, Obama imposed targeted sanctions on Russia, but apparently not enough sanctions to persuade Putin to relinquish Crimea. Instead, in Sept. 2015, Putin made a major military move into Syria, rolling right over the plans of Obama, who had just chaired a big conference Syria at the United Nations in New York.
Instead of joining the gabfest, Putin sent envoys a day later to deliver a demarche to U.S. embassy officials in Baghdad, informing them that Russia was about to begin bombing in Syria.
That same day, in New York, Secretary of State John Kerry meekly told a Russian-chaired meeting of the U.N. Security Council that the U.S. was prepared to “welcome” Russia’s “action,” unless Russia’s aim was to protect Syria’s President Bashar Assad, in which case, “we would have grave concerns.”
It seems Putin was unimpressed. The Russians, and Assad, are still there.
Now there’s a secret CIA assessment on Russian meddling in America’s election, which reportedly makes the controversial inference that Russia meant to help the wrong candidate win. And suddenly, just weeks before Trump is due to take office, Obama sees that Russia is a very great foe indeed, and before leaving office he must get to the bottom of it.