On Tuesday, Facebook announced that it had shut down about three dozen pages and fake accounts linked to a political influence operation targeting the 2018 U.S. elections. Company officials didn’t directly blame Russia for the effort, but they did note similarities between it and Russian operations before the 2016 election and revealed at least some clues tying it to the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency. Congressional leaders were not so shy in making that link, with members of both parties who had been briefed by Facebook blaming Russia.
So, how does President Donald Trump respond? With a series of tweets Wednesday morning railing against Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, one that has yielded indictments of dozens of Russian intelligence agents on charges that they used hacking and other tools in an attempt to sway the 2016 election. Mr. Trump reiterated his claim that the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt,” and he called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to shut it down.
President Trump’s total capitulation during a joint news conference last month to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of Russian influence operation in 2016 led to plenty of joking comparisons to the Manchurian Candidate — perhaps most pithily by former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who tweeted, “That's how a press conference sounds when an Asset stands next to his Handler.” But the president’s continued enthusiasm for casting doubt on the seriousness of the Russian threat to our democracy is beyond mystifying.
The most likely explanation seems to be that Mr. Trump hears “Russian influence” as a denigration of his own campaign skills. How do we know that his motives are so self-centered and petty? Because he keeps telling us so, including on Wednesday morning when he tweeted, “Russian Collusion with the Trump Campaign, one of the most successful in history, is a TOTAL HOAX.” He is obsessed with the demonstrably false notion that he won a historic Electoral College victory (rather than the reality that his margin there was middling and that he lost the popular vote by millions), and he can’t abide the suggestion that anything was involved in his success other than his personal genius.
We have no idea whether the Russian influence campaigns affected the outcome in 2016. Many, many other factors were involved. Nor do we know whether Mr. Trump himself or his campaign more broadly conspired in any way in the Russian effort, though there’s a growing body of evidence that they were at least aware of it and certainly not unhappy about it. But what has long been beyond dispute is that Russian operatives used social media to inflame tensions between American voters in ways designed to damage public trust in our democracy.
As to which side the Kremlin favored, that’s no secret — Mr. Putin said flat out last month that he wanted Mr. Trump to win. But it’s also, on some level, irrelevant. The issue would have been just as serious if the operations had been designed to help Hillary Clinton — or if they are now, as Mr. Trump has unconvincingly claimed, seeking to help Democrats. Mr. Trump’s own Director of National Intelligence recently said warning lights were blinking over Russia’s “ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy,” yet Mr. Trump insists on casting the whole matter in partisan terms. That matters, both because of the bizarre reality that Americans’ view of objective facts has become increasingly tribalized (we wonder how many Trump supporters now believe that you have to show ID to buy groceries simply because the president, who’s clearly never gone grocery shopping, said so at a Tuesday rally) and because a robust, coordinated response across the federal government is necessary to address the threat. Does anyone really think Facebook took care of the problem by shutting down 32 pages and accounts?
Instead, we have a president determined to pretend there was never a problem in the first place, much less an ongoing threat. What luck for Mr. Putin. Nothing could be better than having the president of the United States spreading misinformation and sowing dissent about your efforts to spread misinformation and sow dissent.
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