Denying, or at best downgrading, Russian interference in the 2016 election while attacking Barack Obama’s failure to interfere with Russia’s nonexistent (or maybe just irrelevant) interference is classic Donald Trump. Many of you have probably forgotten, but he tried out that argument soon after Election Day: “If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act? Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?“
Last month, soon after special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and other entities for (cough, cough) interfering in the 2016 election, Trump reached for the same playbook. “Obama was President up to, and beyond, the 2016 Election,” he tweeted. “So why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?”
And, you know what? Those aren’t unreasonable questions. Strictly speaking, however, it’s not true that the White House didn’t complain about the Kremlin’s transgressions until after Trump won. By his own account, Obama told Vladimir Putin right to his face in September 2016 to “cut it out” or else face “serious consequences.” We can only imagine the sleepless nights that tough talk must have cost Putin. Picture the cold sweats, the mutters of “Yebat’ menya, what have I done?” (Since we at Playboy do like to educate our readers, “Yebat’ menya” is Russian for “Fuck me.”)
After the election, the Obama administration did belatedly retaliate. The U.S. kicked out a bunch of Russian diplomats, imposed sanctions against both of their intelligence services and closed down two Russian compounds in Maryland and New York that were supposedly espionage beehives. As you’ll recall, the screams of “Yebat’ menya! Yebat’ menya! Not Maryland!” that reverberated all over Moscow could practically be heard in Nova Scotia.
And so much for trying to squeeze laughs out of Obama’s failure to do more. Even recognizing the political constraints on his range of available options doesn’t let him off the hook. Some ex-members of his own team agree: “It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend,” one unnamed former Obama administration higher-up told the Washington Post in June 2017. “I feel like we sort of choked.”
The reason Obama didn’t want to look “partisan” was that he figured his party’s nominee had it in the bag versus Trump anyway.
Apparently, the Obama administration was first warned about ramped-up Russian disinformation campaigns to diddle elections in Western democracies–though not, it seems, specifically in the United States–over two years before the 2016 election. (Donald Trump’s candidacy wasn’t even a glimmer on the horizon.) Yet no action was taken, partly because the White House doubted Russia had the tools to seriously gum up the works.
Internal disputes over the downside of getting into a spat with the Kremlin played a part, too. “The truth is, nobody wanted to piss off the Russians,” one intelligence official told Politico. All the same, possible counter-measures against Russia were proposed, considered, recommended, urged, debated–and never implemented.
As we now know, the FBI launched its initial investigation in July 2016 into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. That same month, intelligence officials told the White House that they had “high confidence” that Russia was behind the massive hack of the Democratic National Committee’s emails. “I know that experts have attributed this to the Russians,” Obama told NBC, and went on to hint, coyly, that Putin might want Trump to win. Just tossing that crazy idea out there, you know? It wasn’t like it was his job to sound the alarm about such a kooky scenario.
In early October, a joint statement issued by the Department of Homeland Security and then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper–who wasn’t yet the familiar TV presence and Capitol Hill witness he’d become once Russiagate avalanched—finally accused the Russians directly of trying to influence the upcoming election, presenting their analysis as the view of the intelligence community at large. But that only happened after months of behind-the-scenes pressure on the Obama administration from Congress and the national-security establishment to quit beating around the bush.
Then, the media coverage of the IC’s conclusions got overshadowed by another bush: Billy. The infamous Access Hollywood “Grab ‘em by the pussy” tape went public the same day, making Trump seem so doomed that Russia’s help didn’t seem to matter much either way as far as the public was concerned. But it should have mattered inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue because foreign interference is foreign interference. Which presidential candidate benefits or suffers as a result is irrelevant, or at any rate ought to be.
True, we got told that the White House wasn’t going to take Putin’s skulduggery lying down. The reassurance came with a caveat, though: “Consistent with the practice we have adopted in the past,” the usual anonymous “senior administration official” told ABC News, “the public should not assume that they will necessarily know what actions have been taken or what actions we will take.” And we still don’t, making it legit to wonder whether any actions were taken at all.
If any were, they were ineffectual. Notoriously, Russia’s rubber-stamp Parliament burst into applause at the news of Trump’s victory–or Putin’s, if you like. (The point is that they didn’t even bother to conceal their satisfaction at the outcome, if not at the Kremlin’s own unquantifiable but active part in abetting it.) But even after the election, when Obama was supposedly in his “No yebat’ menyas left to give” mode, he stayed maddeningly temperate on the subject.
He left it to lesser officials to announce the retaliatory post-election sanctions against Russia, passing up the chance to use his lame-duck gravitas to explain to the American public the steep price involved in letting Putin think he could get away with trying to screw up our elections. It could have been the most useful presidential adios since Dwight D. Eisenhower calmly dropped the bombshell phrase “the military-industrial complex” into our national vocabulary on his way out the door.
Of course, even aside from his famous aversion to drama—to say the least, clarion calls were never his thing once he was in office—there were also plausible arguments in favor of Obama keeping mum. They started with how he’d have been perceived as trying to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency before Trump even took office. Even so, if you ask us, warning Americans about the need to protect the legitimacy of our democratic institutions from foreign fiddling down the road is the kind of imperative that would have made taking the flak worth it.
That’s a side issue compared to Obama’s less than forceful response to Russia’s hijinks during the campaign. Sure, he’d have been accused of trying to tip the scales in Hillary Clinton’s favor if he’d opted to raise more of a stink, but we have to ask: so what? When you’ve spent your presidency getting called a Kenya-born, America-hating Muslim socialist, and most Fox News watchers believe the worst of you anyway, being labeled a fixer for Hillary strikes us as small potatoes.
On the other hand, alerting the public to the cyber-warfare equivalent of Soviet missiles in Cuba, which this pretty much was, and announcing forthright steps to combat seems like a basic presidential responsibility. (When John F. Kennedy did just that only days before the 1962 midterms, even the most partisan Republicans of that admittedly different era didn’t complain that he should have held off until after election day.) If Trump hasn’t done squat to prevent future foreign interference with our political process–and he hasn’t–Obama’s reticence and lack of urgency two years ago helps give him cover.
Blaming Mitch McConnell isn’t much of an excuse. The Washington Post reported back in December of 2016 that the GOP’s Senate Majority Leader had put the kibosh on a strong bipartisan condemnation of Russian interference before election day. The Post wrote, "According to several officials, McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.” We all know how McConnell hates those.
This past January, ex-Vice President Joe Biden faulted McConnell’s obstructiveness, too. He wondered what would have happened “if the president called a press conference in October, with this fella, Bannon and company, and said, ‘Tell you what: Russians are trying to interfere in our elections, and we have to do something about it.’“ Left unexplained was Biden’s apparent belief that McConnell and Steve Bannon’s non-participation was a good enough reason for the President of the United States to keep silent.
The other standard explanation for the Obama White House’s passivity in the face of Russian meddling is worse. “They thought that Hillary Clinton was going to win, and a potential cyber war wasn’t worth it,” NBC reported, citing–yes, them again–“multiple high-level government officials.”
In other words, the reason Obama didn’t want to look “partisan” was that he figured his party’s nominee had it in the bag versus Trump anyway. Just because he was wrong, how does that make him better than or different from the Republicans now downplaying Russian interference in our electoral politics because they’re happy Trump won, and they don’t care about how? For that matter, how is his inaction different from George W. Bush shrugging off his intelligence experts’ warnings that Osama bin Laden was planning something big?
It’s no secret that Playboy liked President Obama a lot more than we do his successor, but our love of country comes first. We can’t help thinking that his decision to protect his legacy by avoiding a huge partisan fight in his final months in office was a dereliction of duty, and would have been even if Hillary had won. Because the White House anticipated she would, “they were willing to kick the can down the road,” one insider told NBC. But that was no can, yebat’ menya. It was a grenade.