Did President Obama blow the 2016 election? Should he have spoken up sooner and louder about Russia’s interference? That’s what many Democrats are wondering, particularly after reading the Washington Post’s latest investigative report on Obama’s reticent response to the Russian attack. A former official tells the Post that after the election, Obama’s aides, “mortified” by Donald Trump’s victory, thought to themselves: “Wow, did we mishandle this.”
There’s plenty to second-guess in Obama’s management of this episode. But the idea that he failed because Trump won is wrong. Obama’s job wasn’t to prevent the election of a particular person, even one as awful as Trump. Obama’s job was to preserve the country. That meant protecting the integrity of our elections and public faith in them, which he did, to the extent possible after Russia had already hacked into the Democratic National Committee and spread misinformation. The next task—exposing the full extent of Russia’s interference, punishing it, and deterring future attacks—is up to Trump. If he fails, the responsibility to hold him accountable falls to Congress. And if Congress fails, the job of electing a new, more patriotic legislature falls to voters.
According to the U.S. intelligence community’s Jan. 6 assessment, Vladimir Putin’s long-term goal in directing the interference campaign was to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process.” Obama responded accordingly. “We set out from a first-order principle that required us to defend the integrity of the vote,” Obama’s former chief of staff, Denis McDonough, told the Post. Russia’s hacks and leaks were bad, but corruption of voter rolls and election tallies would be far worse. So the Obama administration focused on alerting state officials, fortifying cyberdefenses, and privately threatening Russia with retaliation.
Why didn’t Obama raise public alarms about Russian infiltration? Because that might have backfired. “Trump was predicting that the election would be rigged,” says the Post. “Obama officials feared providing fuel to such claims, playing into Russia’s efforts to discredit the outcome.” According to the paper, Obama and his team “worried that any action they took would be perceived as political interference in an already volatile campaign.” Rather than speak up when the CIA first warned him about Putin’s moves, Obama waited for “a high-confidence assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies on Russia’s role and intent.” He asked congressional Republicans to join him in cautioning citizens and state election officials. You can argue that this was politically naïve. But Obama wasn’t playing politics. He was trying to unite the country.
The Post story shows how blinders warped behavior on all sides. Many Republicans saw Obama and Hillary Clinton as greater threats than Putin. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell resisted Obama’s pleas to warn the public about Russian interference, “voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims.” Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, unconvinced that Russia was involved in the election, dismissed Obama’s outreach to states about election cybersecurity as “a politically calculated move.”
Obama, too, allowed himself to be manipulated. Critics think his “determination to avoid politicizing the Russia issue had the opposite effect,” says the Post. “It meant that he allowed politics to shape his administration’s response to what some believed should have been treated purely as a national security threat.” Obama’s aides, for their part, were misled by the expectation that Clinton would win. They worried about disrupting her march to victory and “contaminating the expected Clinton triumph” by hyping the possibility of ballot sabotage. They also assumed the next administration would want to punish Putin. One official told the Post: “We made the judgment that we had ample time after the election, regardless of outcome, for punitive measures.”
It’s easy to fault Obama and his team for these blinders. But we don’t know what would have happened had he acted differently. If he had raised a stink before the intelligence community reached a consensus, or if he had warned the public explicitly that Russia was trying to help Trump, imagine the outrage. It’s quite plausible that Trump would have won—perhaps even coming out ahead in the popular vote—and Democrats would now be castigating Obama for ruining everything.
Obama and his aides wrongly assumed the next administration would punish Russia, that’s true. But what the anonymous Obama official told the Post—that there would be “ample time after the election, regardless of outcome, for punitive measures”—is also true. Holding Putin accountable and deterring him from future aggression isn’t Obama’s job. It’s Trump’s.
Putin sought to hurt Clinton and help Trump. That’s clear in the intelligence community’s Jan. 6 assessment. But in the heat of the election, Clinton was poorly positioned to make that case. So was Obama, her benefactor and fellow Democrat. The most credible messengers would have been Republicans. The most credible of all, to this day, would be Trump. Nothing in Trump’s history suggests he has the moral comprehension or will to speak the truth about what Putin did, much less to confront him. But every president must be held to a presidential standard.
Obama met that standard. He focused on protecting democracy, not on electing Clinton. He did this so that an American republic could be passed to his successor. Trump’s duty is to safeguard that inheritance. McConnell and other Republicans, having refused to speak publicly about Russian meddling before the election, owe it to their country to uncover the full of extent of what happened.
That’s what makes Trump’s efforts to derail the FBI’s Russia investigation, and Republican attempts to excuse this sabotage, so treasonous. Trump has repaid Obama’s patriotism by rewarding and protecting Putin. Trump refuses to concede that Russia was behind the election hack. He has tried to loosen, not tighten, sanctions on Russia. He has invited Russia’s foreign minister to the White House and assured him, in a meeting closed to the press, that by firing Comey, Trump relieved “pressure” on the U.S.-Russia relationship.
The Russia investigation was never about Russia. It was, and is, about America. It’s about whether you put your country before a partisan or personal agenda. It’s about understanding that America isn’t just a plot of land. It’s an idea. We elect our leaders, our leaders follow rules, and they represent all of us. Obama was determined to preserve that idea, even at the risk of relinquishing the White House to Trump. The successor who betrayed him—and us—is unworthy of his office.