Imagine if, after 9/11, the president had said that the World Trade Center and Pentagon could have been attacked by “China” or “lots of other people.” Imagine if he had dismissed claims of al-Qaida’s responsibility as a “hoax” and said that he “really” believed Osama bin Laden’s denials. Imagine if he saw the attack primarily as a political embarrassment to be minimized rather than as a national security threat to be combated. Imagine if he threatened to fire the investigators trying to find out what happened.
Imagine, moreover, if the president refused to appoint a commission to study how to safeguard America. Imagine if, as a result, we did not harden cockpit doors. If we did not create a Transportation Security Administration and a Department of Homeland Security. If we did not lower barriers between law enforcement and intelligence. If we did not pass a USA Patriot Act to enhance surveillance. And if we did not take myriad other steps to prevent another 9/11.
That’s roughly where we stand after the second-worst foreign attack on America in the past two decades. The Russian subversion of the 2016 election did not, to be sure, kill nearly 3,000 people. But its longer-term impact may be even more corrosive by undermining faith in our democracy.
The evidence of Russian meddling became “incontrovertible,” in the word of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, after Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian organizations on Friday for taking part in this operation. “Defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald Trump (‘Trump Campaign’) and disparaging Hillary Clinton,” the indictment charges.
Yet in a disturbing weekend tweetstorm, President Trump attacked the FBI, Democrats, even McMaster — anyone but the Russians. He sought to minimize the impact of the Kremlin’s intrusion, tweeting: “The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion!” Actually, there’s plenty of evidence of collusion, including the infamous June 2016 meeting that Trump’s son, son-in-law and campaign manager held with Russian representatives who promised to “incriminate” Hillary Clinton.
There is also considerable evidence that the Kremlin impacted the election, which was decided by fewer than 80,000 votes in three states. Trump must have thought the Russian operation was significant because he mentioned its handiwork — the release of Democratic Party documents via WikiLeaks — 137 times in the final month of the campaign. On top of that, Russian propaganda reached at least 126 million Americans via Facebook alone.
The onslaught did not end in 2016. Russian trolls have continued promoting hashtags such as #ReleaseTheMemo to sow dissension and division. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats just testified that Russia “views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.” Yet Trump has never convened a Cabinet meeting to address this threat and has resisted implementing sanctions passed by Congress.
The president’s obstructionism makes it impossible to appoint an 11/8 Commission to study this cyber-assault and to recommend responses. Various agencies, such as the FBI, are trying to combat the Russians on their own, but there is no coordinated response.
Much of the work has been left to social media platforms such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter that had to be dragged kicking and screaming into revealing the extent of Russian penetration, because they don’t want to lose ad revenue and users. Their apathy was underscored by a Friday tweet from Facebook Vice President Rob Goldman that was eagerly quoted by Trump himself: “Most of the coverage of Russian meddling involves their attempt to effect the outcome of the 2016 US election. I have seen all of the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal.” That may be technically accurate as it applies to Facebook ads, but it is also highly deceptive. These ads were only a small part of a vast Russian operation utilizing hackers and trolls that, as Mueller noted, was designed to sway the election.
Just as Sept. 11 made clear that private security could not safeguard the aviation system, so the 2016 Russian attack made clear that social media companies cannot safeguard the electoral system. A greater federal role is needed, yet Trump refuses to even admit that the problem exists.
The most benign explanation is that he is putting his vanity — he can’t have anything taint his glorious victory — above his obligation to “protect and defend the Constitution.” The more sinister hypothesis is that he has something to hide and, having benefited from Russia’s assistance once, hopes for more aid in 2018 and 2020. Either way, we are at war without a commander in chief.
Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”