It was exactly one year ago today that Donald Trump suggested he was prepared to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials about attacking American elections.
Trump said he’d spoken directly with Putin about the scandal, telling Reuters, “I said, ‘Did you do it?’ And he said, ‘No, I did not. Absolutely not.’ I then asked him a second time in a totally different way. He said, ‘Absolutely not.’”
This, evidently, helped convince the American president that he should trust his Russian counterpart’s word over that of U.S. intelligence agencies.
That was July 12, 2017. On July 12, 2018, as this week’s NATO summit wrapped up, Trump hosted a press conference and addressed the issue anew. The Washington Post reported:
President Trump pledged Thursday that will “of course” raise the issue of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election at his summit next week with the country’s leader, Vladimir Putin, but insisted that there was little he could do if – as expected – Putin denies that Russia interfered.
“Look, he may. What am I going to do? He may deny it,” Trump said. “All I can do is say, ‘Did you?’ And, ‘Don’t do it again.’ But he may deny it. You’ll be the first to know.”
The American president doesn’t appear to appreciate how pathetic a line this is. From Trump’s perspective, confronted with overwhelming evidence that Putin’s government launched an unprecedented attack on the United States’ democracy, the president can ask the Russian leader for an explanation. If Putin denies responsibility, Trump can ask again. As the Republican put it this morning, it’s “all” he can do.
He’d make quite a police interrogator, wouldn’t he? “Did you commit the crime? No, really, did you commit the crime? No? Well, I guess that’s that. I gave it my best shot.”
Trump is acting as if he’s effectively powerless, but he’s not. If the American president were serious about a tough response to a Russian attack, he could stop taking Putin’s word for it. He could impose sanctions without foot-dragging. He could stop dismissing the investigation into Russia’s intelligence operation as a “witch hunt.” He could stop taking all kinds of steps that appear designed to make Moscow happy, including undermining international cohesion on NATO.
“What am I going to do?” How about anything other than what Trump’s been doing?