"Nobody knows for sure." That's how Donald Trump framed Russia's attack on our democracy in 2016 just one day before he was to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.
Actually, two months ago the heads of every major U.S. intelligence agency told a Senate panel that they do indeed know for sure—Russia unequivocally hacked our election.
Those are the chiefs of National Intelligence, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. A panel of four more experts did the exact same drill with Warner just a couple weeks ago.
And then there's Trump, who said Thursday that Russia "could well" have been responsible but maybe it was "other people and other countries" too. Trump went on to use the occasion to trash the U.S. intelligence community on the world stage—revisiting the 2002 run up to the Iraq War in which he claimed intelligence officials concluded Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
"Everybody was 100% sure that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? That led to one big mess," Trump later said.
Trump may as well have given his best bro Vlad a big wet kiss. Not only did he lie about the intelligence estimate on Iraq (which turned out to be much more murky than the Bush administration had led the nation to believe), he armed Putin with the perfect weapon to cast doubt on Russia's role in 2016.
So the day before conducting a highly consequential meeting with the very man who has upended America’s faith in the foundations of our republic, Trump, driven by his ever-shrinking ego, gave Putin the strategic upper hand. And Putin, a master of intelligence with some 30 years of diplomatic experience, played Trump like a fiddle at their meeting the following day.
In fact, after their Friday confab dragged on more than two hours, Trump walked away with nothing—absolutely zilch!—in the way of a concession from Putin on Russia's calculated and pervasive effort to undermine the will of the American people in 2016. Though we will never know for certain what was said between Putin and Trump given the omission of a stenographer and the competing accounts of Sec. of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Surgey Lavrov, one thing we can be sure of is that Tillerson put the best spin possible on Trump's performance. And frankly, that’s an ominous sign.
Tillerson asserted that Trump pressed Putin “on more than one occasion” regarding Russia’s interference, adding that Putin "denied such involvement." But he also said Putin and Trump "agreed" the whole issue was a "substantial hindrance" and decided not to "re-litigate" the past. In fact, here’s several excerpts of Tillerson's reflections:
The two leaders agreed, though, that this is a substantial hindrance in the ability of us to move the Russian-U.S. relationship forward [...]
There was a very clear positive chemistry between the two. [...] I think the positive thing I observed -- and I've had many, many meetings with President Putin before -- is there was not a lot of re-litigating of the past. [...]
I think the perspective of both of them was, this is a really important relationship. Two largest nuclear powers in the world. It's a really important relationship. How do we start making this work? How do we live with one another? How do we work with one another? We simply have to find a way to go forward.
In essence: Hey, let’s not cry over spilled milk. So you tried to steal our election—it’s all good. Let’s not let the forest obscure our view of the trees up ahead.
Good Lord, folks—the T-Rex tag team just gave Putin a permanent “Get Out Of Jail Free” card. Sure, go ahead and attack us, you'll never pay a price. Why not just give Puti the keys to the White House and have his name engraved on door of the Lincoln Bedroom?
The one point of agreement in the accounts of both Lavrov (who immediately delivered his assessment on live TV) and Tillerson (who insisted on a delayed off-camera briefing), was that Putin denied Russia's role in the hacking. Lavrov added a nice bit about Trump accepting Putin's denial.
"The U.S. president said that he heard clear statements from President Putin about this being untrue, and that he accepted these statements."
But regardless of whether Lavrov's assertion is true, Putin's denial alone necessitates a punitive response from any president who’s responsibly protecting our country from a foreign adversary who violated our sovereignty the way Putin did. As Nicholas Burns, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and undersecretary of State for George W. Bush, told Nicole Wallace Friday on MSNBC’s Deadline:
"President Trump in leaving this meeting ought to call for sanctions against Russia. He ought to make it hurt and make the Russians understand that if they planned to intervene in the midterms in 2018 or the general election in 2020, there's going to be a severe penalty. And the advantage to President Trump in doing this is that the Senate voted 97-2 to sanction Russia and the bill is now in the House of Representatives. I think that's the appropriate effective next step."
We can forget about Trump doing anything of the sort. Instead, he yapped away for a couple hours with Putin—with whom he reportedly had fantastic "chemistry"—and they agreed their relationship was just too "important" to simply not move "forward."
Burns, while testifying before a Senate panel last week, stressed that Congress needs to take the lead on responding to Russia's subversion of our election.
"I do think that it's time for Congress and not the president to lead the response to Russia's cyberattack on the United States."
On this week, marking the 241st anniversary of our Declaration of Independence, our current pr*sident killed any remnant fantasy that he might actually stand his ground against a foreign intrusion on our democracy.
That puts the responsibility squarely on Congress and more specifically, House Speaker Paul Ryan, to finish the job the Senate started. It is especially incumbent on Ryan—who has refused to hold Trump accountable at every turn—to do what the incapacitated pr*sident he has enabled is incapable of doing.