President Donald Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin for an hour on Friday morning. But, nowhere during that 60 minutes did Trump find time to warn Putin against interfering in future elections as the Russians did in the 2016 presidential race.
“We didn’t discuss that,” Trump told reporters Friday afternoon. “Really we didn’t discuss it. We discussed five or six things. We also went into great detail on various things.”
Great detail! Various things!
Trump’s refusal to raise the possibility of future election interference by the Russians isn’t surprising. But it should be deeply concerning.
No one paying attention should be at all surprised that Trump seems disinterested in the documented Russian interference in our last presidential election. (The US intelligence community said in early 2017 that Russia had sought to interfere in order to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, released last month, backed up that assertion in vivid detail.) After all, Trump has long expressed skepticism regarding the role Russia played in the 2016 campaign – admitting only under duress that the foreign power ran a deep and broad influence campaign.
The last time Trump and Putin shared a stage – in July 2018 at a summit in Helsinki, Finland – Trump was strikingly unwilling to lay blame at the feet of Russia for election interference.
“I hold both countries responsible,” Trump said, with Putin standing at the podium next to him. “I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. … And I think we’re all to blame.”
And, we know from recent reporting that White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has effectively banned conversations with Trump about how to grapple with future election interference because it agitates the President. Wrote the New York Times last month:
“But in a meeting this year, Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, made it clear that Mr. Trump still equated any public discussion of malign Russian election activity with questions about the legitimacy of his victory. According to one senior administration official, Mr. Mulvaney said it ‘wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level.’ “
Which brings us to Friday and Trump’s decision not to raise the issue of election interference with Putin. Before he offered up the fact hat he hadn’t brought up future election meddling in the call, Trump bristled at attempts by reporters to get him to answer the question. “Excuse me,” he told NBC’s Kristen Welker. “I’m talking. I’m answering this question. You are very rude.”
Here’s the thing. We KNOW Russia a) considered its 2016 efforts a huge success and b) is seeking to interfere in future US elections. We know because Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said so in August 2018.
“We continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Coats said from the White House briefing room. “The President has specifically directed us to make the matter of election meddling and securing our election process a top priority.”
(Coats’ contention that Trump views it as a top priority appears belied by Mulvaney’s warning not to bring up the subject in front of Trump and the President’s own resistance to raising the issue during Friday’s phone conversation with Putin.)
What’s even more remarkable about all of this is that Trump earlier this week blasted his predecessor for not doing enough to address the Russia threat before the 2016 election.
“Why didn’t President Obama do something about Russia in September (before November Election) when told by the FBI?,” Trump tweeted.
“He did NOTHING, and had no intention of doing anything!”
The simple fact is this: Trump remains – despite all available evidence – a skeptic about both Russia’s past attempts at interference in the 2016 election and, therefore, the country’s attempts to target future elections. That skepticism could have far reaching consequences when it comes to just how much (or little) the administration prioritizes dealing with these threats from foreign powers heading into the 2020 election. And that is a truly scary reality.