Democracy is in serious danger. United States President Donald Trump may have been compromised by the Russians, but he has shown himself unwilling or unable to defend America against a Russian campaign to divide and undermine democracy in America. He actually believes Russian President Vladimir Putin when he says he is innocent of intervening in America’s presidential elections — over the explicit findings of Trump’s own CIA, NSA and FBI chiefs.
In sum, Trump may be either hiding something too threatening to himself, or he’s not fit to be America’s commander-in-chief. It is impossible yet to say which explanation for his behaviour is true, but it seems highly likely that one of these scenarios explains Trump’s refusal to respond to Russia’s direct attack on the American system — a quiescence that is simply unprecedented for any US president in history. Russia is not America’s friend. It has acted in a hostile manner. And Trump keeps ignoring it all.
Until now, Trump has been flouting the norms of the presidency. Now his behaviour amounts to a refusal to carry out his oath of office — to protect and defend the Constitution. Here is an imperfect but close analogy: It’s as if former president George W. Bush had said after 9/11: “No big deal. I am going golfing over the weekend in Florida and blogging about how it’s all the Democrats’ fault — no need to hold a National Security Council meeting.”
At a time when Special Counsel Robert Mueller — leveraging several years of intelligence gathering by the FBI, CIA and NSA — has brought indictments against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian groups — all linked in some way to the Kremlin — for interfering with the 2016 US elections, America needs a president who will lead the nation’s defence against this attack on the integrity of American electoral democracy.
Mounting an effective defence
What would that look like? He would educate the public on the scale of the problem; he would bring together all the stakeholders — state and local election authorities, the federal government, both parties and all the owners of social networks that the Russians used to carry out their interference — to mount an effective defence; and he would bring together America’s intelligence and military experts to mount an effective offence against Putin — the best defence of all.
What we have instead is a president tweeting that the Russians are “laughing their a***s off in Moscow” for how we’ve been investigating their interventions — and exploiting the terrible school shooting in Florida — and the failure of the FBI to properly forward to its Miami field office a tip on the killer — to throw the entire FBI under the bus and create a new excuse to shut down the Mueller investigation.
To the contrary. America’s FBI, CIA and NSA, working with the special counsel, have done the US amazingly proud. They’ve uncovered a Russian programme to divide Americans and tilt their last election towards Trump — i.e., to undermine the very core of democracy — and Trump is telling them to get back to important things like tracking would-be school shooters. Yes, the FBI made a mistake in Florida. But it acted heroically on Russia. What is more basic than protecting American democracy?
Donald, if you are so innocent, why do you go to such extraordinary lengths to try to shut Mueller down?
Putin used cyberwarfare to poison American politics, to spread fake news, to help elect a chaos candidate, all in order to weaken our democracy. We should be using our cybercapabilities to spread the truth about Putin. That is what a real president would be doing right now.
My guess is what Trump is hiding has to do with money. It’s something about his financial ties to business elites tied to the Kremlin. They may own a big stake in him. Who can forget that quote from his son Donald Trump, Jr. from back in 2008: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of a lot of our assets.” They may own the American president.
But whatever it is, Trump is either trying so hard to hide it or is so naive about Russia that he is ready to not only resist mounting a proper defence of American democracy, he’s actually ready to undermine some of America’s most important institutions, the FBI and Justice Department, to keep his status hidden.
That must not be tolerated. The biggest threat to the integrity of US democracy today is in plain sight.
— New York Times News Service
Thomas L. Friedman is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author.