WASHINGTON – A curious thing has unfolded with the release of details about a Russian campaign to interfere in U.S. politics, allegedly through a secretive unit that had 80 employees, a $1.2 million-a-month budget, and impersonated real Americans by stealing their personal information.
It involves the reaction of the president of the United States.
After an indictment sheet revealed these details Friday, Donald Trump has tweeted about it at least 14 times. He’s blamed the FBI and the news media. He’s scolded his national-security advisor. He’s even used the Florida school shooting to argue that he’s being wronged.
One thing he hasn’t done: Voice displeasure with Russia.
The reaction was in sharp contrast with some members of his own party who sounded disturbed by what they’d heard about Russian election interference. It prompted Democrats to question his motives.
It also drew news headlines like, “We’ve Just Hit A New Presidential Low,” from the Washington Post, “Trump blames everyone but Russia,” from CNN, and “Trump Quiet In A U.S. War On Meddling,” on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times.
Trump’s first tweet after Friday’s indictments was enthusiastic – he claimed his own exoneration. This was because the charge sheet said some Americans who interacted with the Russian information campaign did so unwittingly, and a senior Justice Department official said there was no evidence any of this swayed the 2016 election result.
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By Saturday evening, he expressed frustration.
Trump tweeted about the school shooting that left 17 people dead, and linked it to his own plight: “Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign – there is no collusion. Get back to the basics.”
Then came a gusher of tweets Sunday morning.
He chided his top national-security official, H.R. McMaster, who this weekend said it’s now “incontrovertible” that Russia interfered in the election: “General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians,” Trump said.
He insisted he never called Russian election-meddling a hoax: “I said ‘it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer.”‘
Some people find his reaction abnormal.
On ABC, his former campaign ally, Chris Christie, said: “The president should be staying out of law-enforcement business.” On NBC, Sen. James Lankford was asked whether the president’s reaction bothers him: “It does,” Lankford replied. “Because Russia’s clearly tried to advance their agenda into the United States.”
The president’s reaction was in stark contrast with another politician who allegedly benefited from Russian information campaigns: Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The indictment sheet prepared by Robert Mueller said the Russians involved in a unit called, “The Translator Project,” had instructions to go after all sorts of American politicians, Democrats and Republicans, to sow discord in the U.S. – with two exceptions – Trump and Sanders.
Sanders sounded like he was taking it seriously.
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He acknowledged, in an interview on “Meet The Press,” that after his Democratic primary campaign was lost, Russians appeared to flood Facebook pages to spread negative messages about the nominee, Hillary Clinton. He said a member of his team even reached out to Clinton’s campaign to opine that something weird was happening.
Sanders said it’s imperative American leaders confront Russia about this.
“What we have to say to the Russians (is), ‘You are doing something to undermine American democracy; you are not going to get away with it. This is a major assault. If you do that there will be severe consequences.”‘
He questioned the president’s own approach. While Trump has closed some Russian diplomatic buildings in the U.S. in a diplomatic tit-for-tat, he has also been reluctant to enforce sanctions, avoided criticizing Russia, and has even said he believes Vladimir Putin when he claims Russia didn’t meddle.
“I think (it’s) one of the weirdest things in modern American history,” Sanders said.
“This is a huge deal. And that we don’t have a president speaking out on this issue is a horror show, and we have got to bring Democrats and Republicans together despite the president, to go forward to protect the integrity of American democracy.”
The president also bashed the news media this weekend and accused it of exaggerating the Russia story.
The media bashed back.
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A Washington Post column headlined, “We’ve Just Hit A New Presidential Low,” said: “Imagine how history would have judged Franklin D. Roosevelt in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, if he had taken to the radio airwaves to declare that Tokyo was ‘laughing their asses off.’ Or if George W. Bush had stood in the rubble of the World Trade Center with a bullhorn and launched a name-calling tirade against the Democrats…”
“(Trump’s) self-absorption is such that he cannot see beyond his own fixation, which is that all of this has no meaning beyond the legitimacy of his own election. Moscow must indeed be laughing.”