On Jan. 21, 2017, Donald John Trump raised his right hand and, with just the hint of a smile, took an oath “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.”
Yet in his 14 months in office, Trump has seemed to walk away from that constitutional oath. He has failed to speak out personally against the political aggression against American elections by Russian hackers, trolls and internet bots. And he has failed to take the lead in generating an operational plan for protecting our 2018 midterm elections.
Consider the accumulating evidence that he is evading the most fundamental requirement of his job:
In May 2017, Trump ostentatiously sets up a commission to insure the “integrity” of U.S. elections, instructing it to investigate alleged voter fraud. But he and his commission ignore state election officials calling for a coordinated national plan to deter renewed Russian hacking in 2018. Seven months later, he shuts it down without bothering to look into intelligence reports that Russian hackers had broken into the election systems of 21 states in 2016.
In February, 13 Russian agents are indicted by an American grand jury working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller for meddling in the 2016 elections. Trump’s reaction is to claim innocence for his campaign. “The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!” he tweets.
Consider the accumulating evidence of Trump’s constitutional evasion.
From St. Petersburg, The New York Times and others file graphic inside stories from Russian employees describing how the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin’s Internet trolling factory run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close political associate of President Vladimir Putin, nicknamed “Putin’s chef,” targeted operations in the U.S., specifically the Trump-Clinton race in 2016.
Again, the president ignores Russian harassment of American democracy, even though his then-national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, asserts publicly that “with the FBI indictment, the evidence is now really incontrovertible” that the Russians engaged in a “sophisticated form of espionage against the United States.”
Putin sees no price to pay for meddling in U.S.
In mid-February, the Trump administration’s top-level national intelligence team – the heads of five intelligence agencies – testifies before Congress that the Kremlin’s intelligence operatives are already at work, sowing discord in this year’s political campaign.
“Frankly, the United States is under attack,” warns Dan Coats, a former Indiana Republican senator chosen by Trump as director of National Intelligence. “At a minimum,” Coats cautions, “we expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople, and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.”
The nation’s intelligence chiefs all but ask openly for leadership and guidance from the president to organize a concerted national strategy to shield the mid-term congressional elections from Kremlin intrusions. But they get no visible response from Trump.
Ten days later, Admiral Michael Rogers, head of the military’s Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, is even more explicit. Under questioning from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rogers testifies that so far, he has been given no orders from the White House to undertake strong enough cyber-counter-measures to deter Russian intelligence agencies from interfering in the 2018 elections.
His reading: “President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay and that therefore ‘I can continue this activity.’ ”
Trump stalls on sanctions mandated by Congress
For nearly eight months, Trump talks and walks softly on Russia, defying political allies in Congress by stalling the implementation of sanctions against the Russians for their election meddling in 2016 – sanctions mandated by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress last summer.
Finally, earlier this month, the administration implements part of those sanctions against 19 Russian officials and five intelligence agencies, several of whom had already been sanctioned by the Obama administration. Bipartisan critics on Capitol Hill berate the White House for not adopting the full congressional strategy.
Then, goaded by British Prime Minister Theresa May, who erupts over what she says was the Kremlin’s attempt to kill a former Russian spy living in England with a “military-grade nerve agent,” the Trump administration at last announces the ouster of 60 Russian diplomats and officials and the closing of the Russian consulate in Seattle.
But the president himself says nothing. Officials tell The Washington Post that while the president signed off on the order, he was not much involved in developing that strategy.
Why is Trump afraid to criticize Putin?
Trump’s deafening personal silence on the Russians and his kid gloves treatment of Putin cause some observers to ask whether there is some explosive truth in that notorious dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele suggesting that the Russians do have some Kompromat – compromising material on Trump that he dares not trigger.
In a flash, the president can explode on Twitter in mockery or fury at FBI directors, at American courts and judges, at Democratic party leaders, at Republican senators, or at his frequently maligned attorney general, Jeff Sessions. But Trump acts as if his saying one sour word about Putin would be like stepping on a landmine.
To Trump, of course, the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign strikes dangerously close to undermining the legitimacy of his election. Hence his reflexive dismissal of any investigation of Russian support for his candidacy as “a hoax.” Against mounds of evidence amassed by U.S. intelligence agencies, Trump takes Putin’s denials at face value.
“I asked him again,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One last November after meeting with Putin at an international conference in Vietnam. “He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did. I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it … I think he’s very insulted, if you want to know the truth.”
Trump’s commission on the ‘integrity’ of U.S. elections closed down without even looking into intelligence reports that Russian hackers had broken into the election systems of 21 states in 2016.
In his phone call to Putin after the Russian elections on March 18, Trump once again made no mention of the Russian meddling in 2016 or the continuing Russian political harassment on social media in 2018. His national security team had urged Trump to bring up these issues with Putin, but the president was as mute as a mummy about what America would do if the Kremlin continues its political cyber-intrusions.
Even Republicans in Congress are chafing. The latest bipartisan call for presidential leadership on safeguarding U.S. elections came from the Senate Intelligence Committee. Republican Chair Richard Burr of North Carolina and Democratic Vice Chair Mark Warner of Virginia called on Trump to “clearly communicate to our adversaries that an attack on our election infrastructure is a hostile act and we will respond accordingly.”
Trump’s silence raises fundamental questions: What is he afraid of? Has he failed to keep his oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution”? And if he fails to protect our 2018 elections, is that an impeachable offense?
Hedrick Smith is former Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Times and executive editor of the website, reclaimtheamericandream.org. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.