Batavick: Russian influence not going away

The Russians have attacked our national infrastructure. They have poisoned our water sources, weakened our electrical grid and compromised our electoral system. All are essential to our existence as a liberal democracy and world leader. OK. I have over-stated the case. Only one of these claims is true, and I’ll bet you know which one I’m talking about.

However, if the threat applied to our water or our electrical grid, don’t you think our president and Congress would have done something notably aggressive to respond in kind? Any one of these assaults easily qualifies as an act of war. So, why is President Donald Trump so hesitant to call the Russians into account for their 2016 campaign interference?

Where are the rousing accusations at his ongoing rallies where he takes all of his enemies to task, especially the Democrats and the press? When he viciously tweets about Robert Mueller and his “rigged witch hunt,” why isn’t Trump also assaulting Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Trump has known about the meddling since his election, but it wasn’t until this past July 27 that he used a meeting of his most senior national security advisers to discuss any effort to protect the electoral process. The conversation took less than an hour (another golf outing awaited), and the president issued no directives for the U.S. Cyber Command to use offensive measures to counter Russian interference, once confirmed by NSA.

It’s not like Russia has denied its meddling. On July 16 in Helsinki, Jeff Mason from Reuters asked Putin if he had wanted Trump to win the 2016 presidential election and had directed any of his officials to help him do that. Putin didn’t hesitate: “Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”

By the way, you can now find the above Putin quote in the official White House transcript of the press conference. It had been scrubbed previously, but an outcry from the press persuaded the White House to issue a corrected draft. Somewhere George Orwell is smiling ironically.

Since Helsinki, the president has acted like a compass placed next to a rotating magnet. He’s gone back and forth from accepting our intelligence services’ proof of Russian election meddling to calling it “fake news” or “a big hoax.” Most recently, he’s claimed that Russia “will be pushing very hard for the Democrats” in November because “no president has been tougher on Russia than me.” Gee, I didn’t see that when he faced off with Putin in Helsinki.

The problem is not going away. On July 18, FBI Director Christopher Wray said Russia continues to “engage in malign influence” on our elections. This was followed by the news that two Democratic senators, Claire McCaskill and Jeanne Shaheen, have already experienced Russian military hacking attempts.

According to Laura Rosenberger, director of the bipartisan project Alliance for Securing Democracy, our enemy has learned a lot since 2016. They’ve become more sophisticated and have devised “new ways to divide America.” For example, to stoke tensions through social media, Russian agents have actually pretended to be Americans and taken both sides on such issues as the NFL “take a knee” protests, Roseanne Barr’s racist comments, and the #MeToo movement.

That’s right. Some of the comments you’ve been reading on Facebook and Twitter that you either agree or disagree with have been traced to St. Petersburg. Russia’s thinking is that a divided America is a weakened America. This serves its purposes just like a divided NATO or European Union does.

Why is there a lack of leadership from the top? Is it because the heavy Russian hand in 2016 delegitimizes Trump’s presidency and the direction he’s taken the country? Trump won by fewer than 80,000 votes in three states. In “Messing with the Enemy,” a book by former FBI agent Clint Watts, he claims that “Russia absolutely influenced the U.S. presidential election,” especially in Michigan and Wisconsin, where Trump’s winning margin was less than 1 percent in each state.

I remain convinced that the answer to all of this lies in following the money. So far it’s led to connecting our dear leader to a porn queen and a Playboy Playmate. Mueller’s probe promises to go much further into Trump’s financial entanglements and only then will we learn why he insists on dancing to the tune of a distant balalaika.

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at fjbatavick@gmail.com.

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