Wittingly or not, President Donald Trump spent the Presidents Day weekend doing the Kremlin’s work.
It may be months before Americans learn whether special counsel Robert Mueller will validate or reject allegations that Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with Moscow’s election meddling operation.
But Trump’s three days of Twitter venting against the FBI, his political opponents and the Russia investigation from his Mar-a-Lago resort are likely to further incite mistrust in the institutions of democracy and government, which the Russian intervention was designed to foment.
In addition to lashing out against perceived political foes, Trump rejected the congressional and governmental investigations taking place under the checks and balances of the US system and undermined his own national security adviser’s warning to Russia at a key international forum.
At the same time, Trump failed to condemn the audacious “information warfare” effort alleged in a comprehensive indictment against 13 Russians that Mueller unveiled on Friday. He also failed to promise to protect future US elections – even though intelligence chiefs have warned that an attempt to disrupt November’s midterms may already be underway.
That reluctance is consistent with a pattern of unexplained conduct by the President involving the Russia question. People in his orbit have, for instance, repeatedly lied about the campaign’s contacts with Russians and the President is under investigation for possible obstruction of justice for firing FBI Director James Comey, who had been overseeing the election interference investigation.
Trump has also often been strangely solicitous of Russian President Vladimir Putin, praising his strongman ethos and gravitating toward him at international summits.
But Mueller has not so far announced any findings that prove that the campaign colluded with Russia nor alleged that the President is compromised in any way or indicated whether Trump has anything to fear from the special counsel’s investigation.
Friday’s indictment noted that Russian representatives interacted only with “unwitting” Trump campaign aides – a statement that the President’s supporters used to inaccurately claim he had been absolved of any wrongdoing by Mueller.
There are several scenarios that do not include collusion, starting with Trump’s obsessive sensitivity to claims that his election win was illegitimate or concern that his personal finances may be in Mueller’s sights, that could also explain his bitter antipathy towards the probe.
But that said, this past weekend did reveal a remarkable continuity of interest between Trump and the Russians who plotted the operation, and it shows how his reaction to its exposure is perpetuating the goals that Mueller’s indictment says Russia hoped to achieve.
Moscow’s goal seems to have been to undermine public trust in the institutions of politics and government, which have made the United States a beacon of democracy.
“The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told reporters on Friday.
Some experts go further and argue that the indictment lifts the lid on an expansive Russian operation to undermine the fabric of US public life.
“More than anything it was to sow discord in our political process … to degrade trust in our political institutions and then as well to agitate so that we would be at each other’s throats over this,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA agent stationed in Moscow, on CNN’s “Smerconish” on Saturday.
Trump and Russia have similar targets
But Russia is not alone in actively seeking to tarnish the institutions of American democracy – Trump has acted in a similar way during his presidency, from his jibes at the judiciary to his feuds with intelligence agencies and declaration that the media is an enemy of the people.
His willingness to take on the establishment was an elemental part of his appeal in 2016 and it helps explain his enduring bond with his supporters.
Before Trump became President, it would have been a major shock to see repeated, public attacks on the FBI from the occupant of the Oval Office. Now it happens so often that it is almost old news.
The President took his assault on the bureau to a new level over the weekend by squarely blaming Florida FBI agents for the failure to stop the high school shooting in Broward County last week.
“They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign - there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!” Trump wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
While the President’s constant assault on the FBI is obviously motivated by his anger at the Russia investigation and doesn’t necessarily indicate that he has something to hide, it comes with a bonus for Moscow.
Any ebbing of public trust in the bureau as a result of Trump’s assaults can only be good news for Russia, since the FBI is responsible for detecting and preventing Russian espionage in the United States and depends on public support for its legitimacy.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that only 48% of Americans approve of the way the FBI is handling its mission, while 53% of Republicans do not approve of the job the bureau is doing.
Trump’s weekend tweets also included attacks on the structure of the constitutional system set up to oversee a President’s power.
“If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos within the U.S. then, with all of the Committee Hearings, Investigations and Party hatred, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They are laughing their asses off in Moscow. Get smart America!” Trump tweeted.
The tweet mirrored a statement by the President on Friday night, in which he maintained that distrust in the US system was in fact rooted in attempts to examine the extent of Russian meddling in 2016.
“It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and farfetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions,” Trump said.
Trump’s former campaign adviser Michael Caputo on Tuesday bolstered this argument, maintaining that the Russia intervention was real but putting the blame for the post-election discord on the President’s political enemies at home.
“I think a lot of the dissension that’s been sown since the election was entirely the responsibility of the Democrats,” Caputo told CNN’s “New Day.” “I think the Democrats have fed this bogus Russian collusion narrative to the media, (and) the media have gleefully swallowed it because it’s really good for ratings.”
But Trump, in firing off a volley of tweets critical of his predecessor Barack Obama on Tuesday, ensured that the acrimony stirred by Russia’s operation will exacerbate the scars of an election that still haunts US politics.
The President quoted Obama’s call last year for him to stop “whining” – when Trump claimed that the election could be “rigged” against his Republican ticket.
“The President Obama quote just before election. That’s because he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win and he didn’t want to ‘rock the boat.’ When I easily won the Electoral College, the whole game changed and the Russian excuse became the narrative of the Dems,” Trump tweeted.
Undermining McMaster in Munich
Since an iconic speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, in which he previewed a shift in policy toward the United States by complaining it acted as the world’s sole “master” and “sovereign,” Putin has emerged as a challenger to US global power.
So it was significant that national security adviser H.R. McMaster chose this year’s Munich event to deliver a strong warning to Moscow.
He said the Mueller indictments on Friday showed that evidence of a Russian election-meddling effort was “really incontrovertible,” but he warned that the operation had been counterproductive.
“All that has done is appeal to those big fringes while uniting all of our politics actually against Russia and Russian interference,” he said.
Trump quickly contradicted McMaster, raising new doubts about the level of confidence that the President retains in his national security adviser and undercutting his message that Americans were united against Russia.
“General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems,” Trump tweeted.
It was not the first time that Trump has appeared at odds with his own senior national security staff, which has largely taken a hawkish position toward Russia amid a plunge in relations between the former Cold War foes.
Defenders of Trump often point to a decision by the administration to allow Ukraine to buy small arms and light weapons from US manufacturers to counter the narrative that the President is overly sympathetic to Russia.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders is seizing on complaints, even by some Democrats, that the previous administration did not do enough to punish Russian election subversion.
“Unlike Obama, @POTUS isn’t going to be pushed around by Russia or anybody else,” she said on Twitter on Saturday.
But Obama personally warned Putin against messing with the election, imposed sanctions on Russian individuals and entities, kicked out 35 Russian diplomats and closed two of the Kremlin’s compounds in the United States.
While Obama’s critics demanded more, his action still far exceeds the steps Trump has taken in response to much more detailed and public accusations of interference by Russia. The President still has not imposed sanctions designed to punish election meddling by Moscow.