Even President Donald Trump’s supporters sometimes yearn for him to simply acquiesce to his critics and say the words they want him to use — the traditional talking points that establishment Washington and the media embrace. After Charlottesville, condemn the racists and stop talking. In speeches, stick to the teleprompter. In Helsinki, look at Russian President Vladimir Putin and tell him — oh, maybe something like “Cut it out,” which was enough to earn President Barack Obama a pass.
Instead, Trump in Helsinki said exactly what he always says on the subject of foreign interference in the 2016 election: Putin denies it, there was no collusion, it’s a witch hunt and what about Hillary’s missing e-mails? What got him into hotter water was repeating that mantra with Putin standing at his side.
Career politicians would have known better. Trump only knows how to be who he is and say what he thinks. It was hardly “treasonous” or “impeachable,” as too many cable TV talking heads and Twitter commentators hysterically declared. But it was a diplomatic blunder that will detract from an otherwise appropriate outreach designed to lower tensions between superpowers.
And even though Trump reversed his comments on Tuesday, who knows what Wednesday will bring?
Still, just as wrong as Trump’s news conference performance was the insistence from some quarters that he should have traveled to Helsinki to publicly humiliate Putin, which would have been another example of meaningless political theater. What Trump knows is that the endless attention on election interference (it used to be “collusion,” but that’s fading away) is connected not to real concern over the sovereignty of our democracy, but to the fact that the wrong candidate won. It’s why he has trouble feigning outrage over it.
Foreign interference in our elections did not begin in 2016, but you can be forgiven if you don’t know that. The media largely yawned about it in 2008 and 2012, but there were a few isolated stories.
In May 2013, Time magazine reported that in August 2011 the Obama campaign learned that “foreign nation-states were trying to gain access to the campaign’s databases and social media accounts with extraordinarily sophisticated means.”
The article added that the same was true for the Romney campaign, which was “under constant attack.” The National Republican Congressional Committee was also later targeted. While no one would confirm which foreign powers were suspects, “one Obama campaign staffer said she was warned about the threat from China in particular.”
The story noted that similar efforts had been detected back in 2008 when “both the Obama and McCain campaigns were the victims of a sophisticated hack, believed by law enforcement to be tied to foreign governments. … Viewed in hindsight, the attacks present a disturbing picture of interference in core American political functions.”
The article — written five years ago, mind you — added, “The revelation in the days following Obama’s historic victory was largely overlooked, and it was just a taste of what was to follow.”
Consider that last point. The hacks were “largely overlooked” in the wake of “Obama’s historic victory.” In other words, no big deal, the right candidate won. No special counsel needed. No more ink or airtime wasted on the subject. No sanctions. No additional scrutiny.
But in 2016, Trump was the wrong winner, which made Russian interference wall-to-wall news, all day, every day, which, in turn, made Russia’s goal of sowing discord and distrust among Americans wildly successful.
A New York Times article earlier this year noted that career intelligence veterans were not overly alarmed at Russia’s attacks in 2016. Loch K. Johnson, a renowned intelligence scholar, told the Times that Russia’s 2016 operation “was simply the cyber-age version” of what the United States itself has long done. Johnson said, “We’ve been doing this kind of thing since the CIA was created in 1947. We’ve used posters, pamphlets, mailers, banners — you name it. We’ve planted false information in foreign newspapers. We’ve used what the British call ‘King George’s cavalry’: suitcases of cash.”
Everyone qualifies such admissions with a reminder that there is no “moral equivalency” — the United States interferes in elections for the right reasons.
But although Russian election interference in 2016 was quickly weaponized politically, even Trump’s supporters sometimes wish he would just say the words that will make everyone happy. But Trump seldom grants such small favors, and hysteria ensues. Calm will eventually be restored — until next time, which will no doubt arrive any day.
Gary Abernathy is a freelance writer based in Hillsboro, Ohio. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.