Trump appears determined to ignore the urgent security message contained in the report: “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” Instead, he continues to stiff arm top officials who want to coordinate a strategy to protect the 2020 elections.
Falsely claiming “complete exoneration” by the report, the president still insists the Mueller report is a fraud designed by opponents to torment him. First son-in-law Jared Kushner sloughed off Russian meddling as a “couple of Facebook ads.”
That massive misrepresentation makes it impossible to design a rational policy towards Russia.
Instead, Trump seems determined to continue the kind of feckless behavior toward Moscow that provoked the Mueller investigation in the first place. This opens the door to more Kremlin meddling, whether or not Trump is formally charged with a crime.
Indeed, it is important to understand what Robert Mueller actually concluded about Trump’s complicity with the Russians. The special prosecutor decided that the dozens of links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign didn’t add up to the formal legal definition of a “conspiracy” or “coordination,” which require an actual pact between two sides.
But the special prosecutor lays out scores of contacts between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, at the highest levels, all the way up to Donald Trump Jr., in stunning and graphic detail. The report specifies that “the [Trump] campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
Members of the campaign — and the president — knew in advance that Wikileaks would release hacked emails from the Clinton campaign, and urged it on. This, at a time when U.S. intelligence agencies knew that Wikileaks was serving as a front for Russian military intelligence, which stole the emails in order to influence the U.S. election.
In an astonishing interview Sunday on Meet the Press, Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, made clear he saw no problem with Trump’s taking information provided by a Russian adversary. Why? Because it disparaged Clinton.
In other words, so long as no legal crime can be proven, this White House is eager to use the products of Russian espionage — against its American political opponents.
But the security lessons from the Mueller report are far darker than that.
Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of Homeland Security until she was forced to resign earlier this month, tried repeatedly over the past months to organize a whole-of-government response to coordinate a strategy to protect elections in 2020. She failed, because of White House opposition, reports the New York Times. White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney made it clear that Trump didn’t want any public discussion on Russian cyber meddling because he still equates the subject with questions about his victory in 2016.
Never mind that U.S. intelligence agencies listed cyber threats as the number one security challenge in their 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment. “All the government agencies want to do something but there is no direction, no coordination from the top,” says Clint Watts, a counterterrorism expert and former FBI special agent and author of Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News.
Instead, Trump national security adviser John Bolton eliminated the position of cybersecurity coordinator at the White House in 2018, leaving junior aides to deal with the issue. “This shows the administration intends to do nothing to prevent it from happening again,” says Watts, now a fellow at Philadelphia’s Foreign Policy Research Institute.
What is equally disturbing is Trump’s continued attacks on FBI counterintelligence agents and intelligence agencies tasked with keeping tabs on Russian interference. At the Helsinki summit last year, the president stood beside Russian President Vladimir Putin and said he accepted the Russian leader’s words — that Russia had never meddled in 2016 — over the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community.
And in his effort to blur the details of the Mueller report, Trump is trying to blacken the FBI’s reputation by claiming its investigation of Russian meddling was part of a “deep state” attack on his presidency.
What better gift to Putin than to undercut the very U.S. agencies responsible for investigating Russia’s efforts to undermine U.S. institutions? If a President Obama or Clinton had pursued this path, GOP leaders would no doubt shout “treason.”
Instead, they blur the deeper message of the Mueller report by repeating Trump’s mantra: “no collusion.” Yet the president’s actions advance Kremlin objectives.