Top aides to President Obama and President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday escalated their war of words over allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election.White House press secretary Josh Earnest hit back at senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway after she accused him of making inappropriate comments in stating that Trump encouraged Russian hacking of his political opponents.
There are a variety of ways Donald Trump and his team can respond to allegations that Vladimir Putin's Russian government attacked the American political system in order to help Trump win. Making it a test of patriotism, however, is a very bad idea.This morning on Fox News, Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to the president-elect, complained bitterly that President Obama and Hillary Clinton haven't sided with Trump and shut down all conversation about Russia's alleged crimes. "If you want to shut this down and you actually love the country enough to have this peaceful transition in our great democracy between the Obama administration and the Trump administration," Conway said, "there are a couple people in pretty prominent positions, one's named Obama, one's named Hillary Clinton, since it's people want to fight for her election, they can shut this down."I'm hard pressed to imagine how anyone could take such an argument seriously. To hear Conway tell it, Team Trump thinks it has the patriotic high-ground in this scandal. Donald Trump appears to have benefited from illegal Russian intervention into our political system -- intervention that the Republican publicly encouraged during the campaign -- but if Democrats "actually love the country," they're supposed to look the other way.For the good of the country, Conway seems to believe, it's best to ignore and stop all conversation about an attack on the country.This mind-numbing posture is just the latest evidence of an administrative handoff that started in a friendly and genial way, but which has clearly hit a rough patch.
"[I]t is just a fact -- you all have it on tape -- that the Republican nominee for president was encouraging Russia to hack his opponent because he believed that that would help his campaign," Earnest told reporters in response to Conway's complaints about his rhetoric. "That's not a controversial statement. I'm not trying to be argumentative, but I am trying to acknowledge a basic fact. And all of you saw it. This is not in dispute."For his trouble, Earnest was called out by name by Trump during his latest self-congratulatory rally last night in Pennsylvania, with the president-elect calling the White House press secretary "this foolish guy," who "is so bad."I think it's fair to say Obama made a sincere effort to make the transition process as smooth as possible. The president invited Trump to the White House just two days after the election, quickly cleared Trump for classified security briefings, and ordered agencies to cooperate with the transition team as much as possible.Obama recognized the fact that his successor was an unqualified television personality best known for pushing a racist conspiracy theory intended to undermine his presidency, but Obama took the high ground anyway, being gracious and accommodating in the face of what he no doubt saw as a historic failure of the American political system.But clearly, Trump and his cohorts aren't making this easy, and the public strains are becoming more obvious. As TNR's Brian Beutler noted the other day, "the politeness is draining rapidly out of the process" as the president-elect, among other things, publicly goes after U.S. intelligence agencies and names cabinet choices who intend to move the country in a radical and arguably dangerous direction.Conway's bizarre comments this morning are emblematic of a relationship between the operations that is rapidly deteriorating. Inauguration Day is exactly six weeks from today; whether Team Obama and Team Trump can keep their animosity in check for that long is an open question.