Editor’s Note: Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The partisan warfare over the Mueller report will rage, but one thing cannot be denied: Former President Barack Obama looks just plain bad. On his watch, the Russians meddled in our democracy while his administration did nothing about it.
The Mueller report flatly states that Russia began interfering in American democracy in 2014. Over the next couple of years, the effort blossomed into a robust attempt to interfere in our 2016 presidential election. The Obama administration knew this was going on and yet did nothing. In 2016, Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice told her staff to “stand down” and “knock it off” as they drew up plans to “strike back” against the Russians, according to an account from Michael Isikoff and David Corn in their book “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump”.
Why did Obama go soft on Russia? My opinion is that it was because he was singularly focused on the nuclear deal with Iran. Obama wanted Putin in the deal, and to stand up to him on election interference would have, in Obama’s estimation, upset that negotiation. This turned out to be a disastrous policy decision.
Obama’s supporters claim he did stand up to Russia by deploying sanctions after the election to punish them for their actions. But, Obama, according to the Washington Post, “approved a modest package… with economic sanctions so narrowly targeted that even those who helped design them describe their impact as largely symbolic.” In other words, a toothless response to a serious incursion.
But don’t just take my word for it that Obama failed. Congressman Adam Schiff, who disgraced himself in this process by claiming collusion when Mueller found that none exists, once said that “the Obama administration should have done a lot more.” The Washington Post reported that a senior Obama administration official said they “sort of choked” in failing to stop the Russian government’s brazen activities. And Obama’s ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, said, “The punishment did not fit the crime” about the weak sanctions rolled out after the 2016 election.
A legitimate question Republicans are asking is whether the potential “collusion” narrative was invented to cover up the Obama administration’s failures. Two years have been spent fomenting the idea that Russia only interfered because it had a willing, colluding partner: Trump. Now that Mueller has popped that balloon, we must ask why this collusion narrative was invented in the first place.
Given Obama’s record on Russia, one operating theory is that his people needed a smokescreen to obscure just how wrong they were. They’ve blamed Trump. They’ve even blamed Mitch McConnell, in some twisted attempt to deflect blame to another branch of government. Joe Biden once claimed McConnell refused to sign a letter condemning the Russians during the 2016 election. But McConnell’s office counters that the White House asked him to sign a letter urging state electors to accept federal help in securing local elections – and he did. You can read it here.
I guess if I had failed to stop Russia from marching into Crimea, making a mess in Syria, and hacking our democracy I’d be looking to blame someone else, too.
But the Mueller report makes it clear that the Russian interference failure was Obama’s alone. He was the commander-in-chief when all of this happened. In 2010, he and Eric Holder, his Attorney General, declined to prosecute Julian Assange, who then went on to help Russia hack the Democratic National Committee’s emails in 2016. He arguably chose to prioritize his relationship with Putin vis-à-vis Iran over pushing back against Russian election interference that had been going on for at least two years.
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If you consider Russian election interference a crisis for our democracy, then you cannot read the Mueller report, adding it to the available public evidence, and conclude anything other than Barack Obama spectacularly failed America. Subsequent investigations of this matter should explore how and why Obama’s White House failed, and whether they invented the collusion narrative to cover up those failures.