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Witcover: Twin towers of infamy

The 9/11 attacks and the Russian meddling in the last presidential election constitute twin towers of infamy, grave and intolerable attacks against this country and what it stands for.

Together, the 9/11 attacks and the Russian meddling in the last presidential election constitute twin towers of infamy, grave and intolerable attacks against this country and what it stands for.

The 2001 assault by hijacked commercial jets leveled pillars of American economic and military might in New York and Washington. Fifteen years later, the cyberspace hacking against the Democratic National Committee and other U.S. targets ripped into the political pillars of our cherished system of self-government.

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Taken as one, these outrageous acts, the first by foreign terrorists and the second by a major autocratic foreign military and political power, are on a historical par with the Japanese surprise air attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941.

United States battleships explode and burn, as the Japanese attack Pear Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941 - "a date which will live in infamy."
United States battleships explode and burn, as the Japanese attack Pear Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941 - "a date which will live in infamy." (The Baltimore Sun)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, responding with a declaration of war on Imperial Japan, memorably labeled it "a date which will live in infamy." The same can now be said of the two later crimes. Apparently in the view of our current president, however, the Russian intrusions into our election system cannot compare, and in fact he appears still to have doubts they happened at all.

In his much-anticipated direct meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Germany, Donald Trump reported he had confronted him with the cyber meddling, confirmed unanimously by the full American intelligence community.

Mr. Putin denied the charge, saying "there were no grounds to believe Russia intervened in the U.S. electoral process," and he later stated that Mr. Trump seemed to him to "take his word into account, and agreed." Indeed,Mr. Trump indicated he was ready to let it all go at that, to the point of telling Mr. Putin it was "an honor to be with you."

Even as former and present leaders of the U.S. intelligence committee told Mr. Trump there was every expectation that Russians would continue their intrusions in the future, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who sat in on the meeting, reported that Messrs. Trump and Putin had agreed to talk further "regarding commitments of noninterference in the affairs of the United States and our democratic process."

But Mr. Trump himself astonishingly later tweeted: "The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn't mean I think it can happen. It can't, but ceasefire can and did!" He apparently was referring to a reported and unrelated ceasefire in a part of the Syrian civil war, which had nothing to do with the yet-unpunished election meddling.

Some Republicans, as well as many Democrats, scoffed at the notion that Mr. Putin and Russia could partner with America on combatting cyber hacking into foreign political activities. "When it comes to Russia," said GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mr. Trump has "got a blind spot." On NBC's "Meet the Press," he said, "To forgive and forget when it comes to Putin regarding cyberattacks is to empower Putin."

Sen. John McCain pointedly raised the fact that Mr. Trump has not sought to exact any price from the Russians for their meddling. On CBS News' "Face the Nation," he lamented it, adding, "Yes, it's time to move forward, but there has to be a price to pay" for what already has been done. As for the notion of Mr. Putin cooperating in cyber security, Mr. McCain sarcastically observed he was sure Mr. Putin "could be of enormous assistance in that effort, since he's doing the hacking."

During and since the 2016 election, Mr. Trump has clung to the notion that he not only could work with Mr. Putin but he could usher in a new era of cooperation and good will with his new friend Vladimir. If, however, the price is to swallow Russian assaults on America's most democratic principles and practices, and on its unity with the Western Alliance achieved in World War II and the Cold War, Mr. Trump is headed toward even more peril and infamy, both domestically and abroad, in the months ahead.

Who needs all this internal distraction and obfuscation, caused by Mr. Trump's misplaced conviction that he can make Mr. Putin a reliable ally, while running his young and stumbling administration as if it's part of his family real estate empire?

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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