His re­al­ity gap

Rus­sia med­dled; there was no voter fraud — why won’t the pres­i­dent own up?

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - Mark We­ber Tri­bune Max Boot is a con­tribut­ing writer to Opin­ion and a se­nior fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions. By Max Boot

For a pres­i­dent who lies more than any of his pre­de­ces­sors — even Lyn­don B. John­son and Richard Nixon — Don­ald Trump can also be can­did to a fault. Re­call how, af­ter firing FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey, he blew apart the spin that this had noth­ing to do with any in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the Trump cam­paign by openly ad­mit­ting that he acted be­cause of the “Rus­sia thing.” Over the week­end he did it again — and at the most dam­ag­ing time imag­in­able: just be­fore the block­buster reve­la­tions about Don­ald Trump Jr. ex­claim­ing “I love it” at the prospect of get­ting elec­tion help from the Rus­sian govern­ment.

Trump’s aides claim he was tough on Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin when they met in Ham­burg, Ger­many. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son said Trump “pressed” Putin “re­gard­ing Rus­sian in­volve­ment.” Anony­mous U.S. of­fi­cials deny Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov’s as­ser­tions that Trump “ac­cepted” Putin’s false as­sur­ances that Rus­sia was not be­hind the hack­ing and leak­ing of Demo­cratic Party doc­u­ments last year.

But then on Sun­day morn­ing Trump took to Twit­ter to es­sen­tially con­firm what Lavrov said: “I strongly pressed Pres­i­dent Putin twice about Rus­sian med­dling in our elec­tion. He ve­he­mently de­nied it. I've al­ready given my opin­ion ..... ” Yes, he did: In Warsaw, the day be­fore his meet­ing with Putin, Trump opined, as he has many times be­fore, “I think it could very well have been Rus­sia, but I think it could well have been other coun­tries…. No­body re­ally knows. No­body re­ally knows for sure.”

This is, as the Bri­tish say, bol­locks. We do know for sure: the FBI, CIA, NSA and the Of­fice of the Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence is­sued a unan­i­mous “high con­fi­dence” as­sess­ment in Jan­uary that Rus­sia was be­hind the hack­ing last year, and that its in­tent was to hurt Hil­lary Clin­ton and to help Don­ald Trump. Trump’s mis­lead­ing as­ser­tions that it was “three or four” in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, not all 17, are mean­ing­less, be­cause there was no dis­sent from the other in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. And, as for­mer Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence James R. Clap­per said, “We saw no ev­i­dence ...that it was any­one in­volved in this other than the Rus­sians.”

Yet, de­spite all ev­i­dence to the con­trary, Trump re­fuses to ac­cept re­al­ity. In Ham­burg, he even dis­cussed with Putin an Alice-in Won­der­land pro­posal of form­ing a joint U.S.-Rus­sian “Cy­ber Se­cu­rity unit so that elec­tion hack­ing, & many other neg­a­tive things, will be guarded.” As Sen. John McCain noted sar­cas­ti­cally Sun­day, “I am sure that Vladimir Putin could be of enor­mous as­sis­tance in that ef­fort since he’s do­ing the hack­ing.” The idea is so inane that by the end of the day even Trump had dis­owned it, leav­ing his Trea­sury sec­re­tary, Steven T. Mnuchin, who had loy­ally called the cy­ber­se­cu­rity part­ner­ship “a very sig­nif­i­cant ac­com­plish­ment for the pres­i­dent,” twist­ing in the wind.

Trump’s de­nial of Rus­sian elec­tion-med­dling is all the more star­tling when con­trasted with his reck­less pro­mul­ga­tion of base­less claims that mil­lions of il­le­gal bal­lots were cast in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. There is not an iota of ev­i­dence to sup­port this as­ser­tion. It is an en­tirely imag­i­nary scan­dal man­u­fac­tured by Trump be­cause his frag­ile psy­che can’t han­dle the fact that Hil­lary Clin­ton won more pop­u­lar votes than he did.

Yet Trump is pur­su­ing nonex­is­tent ev­i­dence of wrong­do­ing with all the pow­ers at his dis­posal, set­ting up a voter fraud com­mis­sion, headed by Kansas Sec­re­tary of State Kris Kobach, that is it­self fraud­u­lent. Pretty much ev­ery state has de­clined to share voter in­for­ma­tion with this po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated com­mis­sion be­cause do­ing so would vi­o­late vot­ers’ pri­vacy and could open the way to gen­uine large-scale fraud — imag­ine if hack­ers could break into a sin­gle data­base con­tain­ing all of the na­tion’s voter in­for­ma­tion.

How to ex­plain the dis­crep­ancy, with Trump ig­nor­ing a real scan­dal and doggedly pur­su­ing a phony one? The an­swer is pretty sim­ple: Trump doesn’t care a whit about the na­tional in­ter­est. All he cares about is his self-in­ter­est.

No mat­ter what Don­ald Trump Jr. did or didn’t con­vey to him about his meet­ing with a Rus­sian lawyer last year, the pres­i­dent is hardly ig­no­rant of Rus­sian machi­na­tions. Even be­fore re­ceiv­ing the full in­tel­li­gence brief­ings on what the Rus­sians did — and it ap­pears that the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity has proof that Putin per­son­ally or­dered the elec­tion med­dling — he showed his aware­ness of the Rus­sian role in July 2016 when he called on the Krem­lin to hack Hil­lary Clin­ton’s emails. This is what the lawyers call “guilty knowl­edge.”

But Trump isn’t mad about this as­sault on Amer­i­can democ­racy be­cause he was its ben­e­fi­ciary. He is only mad that the “fake news” me­dia, his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents and spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III con­tinue to probe the Rus­sian role. The most be­nign ex­pla­na­tion is that Trump is worried that such in­ves­ti­ga­tions will un­der­mine his po­lit­i­cal le­git­i­macy. The sin­is­ter ex­pla­na­tion is that he is worried true col­lu­sion be­tween his cam­paign and the Krem­lin will be ex­posed — some­thing that ap­pears more likely the more we know about Don­ald Trump Jr.’s will­ing­ness to seek Rus­sian dirt on Hil­lary Clin­ton. Ei­ther way, the pres­i­dent is not treat­ing this with the se­ri­ous­ness that an at­tack on our democ­racy de­serves.

Trump is in ef­fect giv­ing the Rus­sians a pass, re­fus­ing to im­pose any sanc­tions be­yond the in­ad­e­quate steps taken by Pres­i­dent Obama — namely kick­ing out a few Rus­sian diplo­mats and con­fis­cat­ing a cou­ple of Rus­sian diplo­matic com­pounds. His administra­tion is even lob­by­ing to wa­ter down in the House a sanc­tions bill passed 97-2 by the Se­nate.

The re­sult of Trump’s pas­siv­ity is likely to en­cour­age more such Rus­sian as­saults. Clap­per warns that the Rus­sians are al­ready “prep­ping the bat­tle­field” for the 2018 elec­tion — and be­yond. That may be just what Trump is count­ing on. Given cur­rent opin­ion polls, the GOP faces a tough elec­tion next year and Trump will have trou­ble get­ting re­elected in 2020. Maybe he’s count­ing on win­ning, to mash up two Bea­tles ti­tles, “with a lit­tle help from my friends … back in the U.S.S.R.”

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