Donald Trump asks the question frequently, and always with a sneer: If President Barack Obama knew that Vladimir Putin had intervened in the United States’ election with the direct intention of helping Trump, why did Obama wait so long to say anything? The answer detailed in a new story from the Washington Post turns out to be simple: First, Obama was trying to do the right things. Second, Republicans stopped that from happening.
As former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testified earlier this week, the Russian activity in the election went beyond just hacking into emails, beyond distributing those emails through Wikileaks, and beyond creating a stream of fake-news stories that were eagerly shared by alt-right websites and social media. Russia took unprecedented “active measures,” attempting to penetrate state databases and alter or delete voter roles.
It was tantamount a secret declaration of war by Russia, and the Obama administration treated it the security and care that it deserved.
Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides. …
The material was so sensitive that CIA Director John Brennan kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report’s distribution was too broad. The CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read. To guard against leaks, subsequent meetings in the Situation Room followed the same protocols as planning sessions for the Osama bin Laden raid.
At that early stage, they couldn’t tell the full extent of the Russian operations. They didn’t know the scale of the attack. They couldn’t tell who in the United States might be cooperating with the Russians. They could only be certain about one thing.
The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.
Quietly, the intelligence community went to work as resources were dedicated to the issue and other agencies attempted to confirm or deny the information gathered by the CIA. If Obama had revealed the information, and the intelligence turned out to be false, he would certainly have been guilty of interfering with the election himself. Considering the import of the information, it was possible that simply talking about it openly could move the conflict from cyberspace to the battlefield. So Obama proceeded with caution, working to confirm the CIA’s intelligence and searching for ways to respond to Russian action. He needed to build a case that would hold up in front of both Republican leaders in Congress and the public.
It took time for other parts of the intelligence community to endorse the CIA’s view. Only in the administration’s final weeks in office did it tell the public, in a declassified report, what officials had learned from Brennan in August — that Putin was working to elect Trump.
Donald Trump throws that delay out there as not just a taunt, but proof that he is somehow “innocent.” Because if Trump had even a hint of information, he would have fired it straight out of his Twitter gun. Trump demonstrated this many times during the election and since, as repeated even the most tenuous and ludicrous rumor as if it were accepted fact.
Obama wasn’t going to do that. It wasn’t a matter of “staying classy.” It was a matter of following the law, protecting the nation, and reaching a result that was more than a revenge tweet. Obama was concerned that going public with the information in the early days invited both criticism and speculation. On the most basic leave, President Obama was simply trying to ensure that his actions didn’t make the situation worse.
But as carefully and thoroughly as the intelligence community assembled a case, there was one point they couldn’t get past.
Obama instructed aides to … seek bipartisan support from congressional leaders for a statement condemning Moscow and urging states to accept federal help.
None of that happened. Some Republican leaders in Congress put off even meeting with intelligence officials, delaying the process by weeks. Meanwhile, Jeh Johnson attempted to designate election infrastructure as “critical,” in order to give them the same protection provided to defense contractors.
Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state of Georgia, used the call to denounce Johnson’s proposal as an assault on state rights. “I think it was a politically calculated move by the previous administration,” Kemp said in a recent interview, adding that he remains unconvinced that Russia waged a campaign to disrupt the 2016 race. “I don’t necessarily believe that,” he said.
In short: Republicans were—and are—more concerned with hurting Obama than they were in stopping Russia. In a sense, Republicans as a group colluded with Russia, in that they refused to take action to protect the nation against intrusion. And it wasn’t just random state level officials. When Congressional leadership finally met with the intelligence community for a briefing …
“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.
The answer to why Barack Obama didn’t speak out more strongly and more early about Russian interference for Trump, is because Republicans blazed the trail Trump is still following: They refused to cooperate, placing party above country.