(L to R) President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with retired United States Marine Corps general James Mattis after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, Nov. 19, 2016 in Bedminster Township, N.J.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty

Mattis breaks new ground, claims Russian interference in midterms

Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke over the weekend at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California, where the Pentagon chief conceded that the relationship between the United States and Russia has deteriorated over the last two years. As the Associated Press reported, however, that’s not all Mattis said.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Saturday took aim at Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing him of trying to “muck around” in the U.S. midterm elections, of duplicity in arms control and of acting irresponsibly in last weekend’s naval confrontation with Ukraine. […]

“We are dealing with someone that we simply cannot trust,” he said. “There is no doubt the relationship has worsened.” Mattis did not elaborate on his claim that Russia tried to interfere in last month’s elections, adding only, “We are seeing a continued effort along those lines.”

Moscow’s interest in this year’s U.S. elections is neither new nor surprising. On the contrary, this is exactly what intelligence officials and agencies warned us about for months.

There are, however, a couple of important angles to Mattis’ public comments. For one thing, they appear to be the first time since Election Day that a high-ranking official in the Trump administration has confirmed the Kremlin’s attempts to interfere not only with the 2016 cycle, but also the 2018 cycle.

For another, the remarks from the retired four-star general put the onus on his boss to respond.

Let’s not forget that in July, as the intelligence community rang alarm bells about Russian interference, Donald Trump said he did not believe Putin’s government was targeting our elections. A reporter specifically asked the American president if Russia was targeting the 2018 midterms, and Trump offered a one-word response: “No.”

Why the Republican felt comfortable ignoring the intelligence assessments of his own administration was unclear, but according to Trump’s Defense secretary, Trump’s assumption now appears to have been wrong, too.

The same week, the American president said he’d tell his Russian counterpart, in reference to election interference, “Don’t do it again.”

That was nearly five months ago. According to the Pentagon, Moscow did do it again. What, exactly, does Trump intend to do about it? If the answer is, “not a whole lot,” how will the White House justify the president’s passivity?