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Analysis: Trump should learn from Obama’s handling of Russian meddling

WASHINGTON — The last week has provided new reminders that the Obama administration dropped the ball when it could have tried to thwart Russian interference in the 2016 election when it looked as if Hillary Clinton would glide into the Oval Office.

And President Donald Trump has been happy to broadcast the news.

To go by Trump’s tweets, the president sees the last week as a win-win. First, in two tweets Thursday, he ended speculation that he might have taped conversations with former FBI chief James Comey, whom he fired — seemingly without legal ramifications.

What’s more, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee highlighted Obama’s apathy about Russian mischief when Clinton seemed sure to win. Johnson admitted the Obama administration did not do more to protest Russian mischief out of concern that “we might, in and of itself, be challenging the integrity of the election process itself.”

Trump tweeted in triumph: “By the way, if Russia was working so hard on the 2016 Election, it all took place during the Obama Admin. Why didn’t they stop them?”

Johnson acknowledged that the Democratic National Committee didn’t turn over its servers to aid the FBI’s Russia investigation. Trump tweeted, “It’s all a big Dem scam and excuse for losing the election!”

On Friday, The Washington Post reported that the CIA informed Obama and three top aides in August that Russian President Vladimir Putin had issued specific instructions that operatives try to damage Clinton and help Trump.

It was hard not to notice, as GOP strategist and CNN contributor Alice Stewart observed, “It was at the order of Vladimir Putin” — and still the Obama administration “withheld it.”

“Look, the reality is we don’t know that if they disclosed what they knew it would have changed the election,” Stewart said. “I doubt it. But they didn’t do anything” other than a subtle sanctions pushback that “was too little too late.”

An anonymous former senior Obama official told the Post, “I feel like we sort of choked.” Note that when the Obama administration failed to act before the election, that was just choking. But when Trump doesn’t voice outrage at Russian meddling, Democrats see that posture as sinister.

Trump may see this as a good week, but just when things look sunny in Trumpland, a little shade can appear. In July, the president will attend the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, where he will encounter Putin for the first time since taking office. For this meeting, Trump needs to concentrate on the optics.

If The Washington Post story made Obama look feckless for not doing more to thwart Russia mischief, it also highlighted the need for any commander in chief to put some fear into Moscow.

That means Trump has to put aside the way he talked about Putin almost fondly during the 2016 campaign. “I spoke indirectly — and directly — with President Putin” during his Miss Universe pageant, Trump once said, adding that Putin “could not have been nicer.”

Trump needs to think about the optics. And as former CIA spokesman and 15-seconds.com blogger Bill Harlow asked rhetorically in an email, “Did he think about the optics when he met in the Oval with (Russian Ambassador Sergey) Kislyak and (Russian Foreign Minister Sergey) Lavrov the day after firing Comey?”

A Russian photographer actually was in the room snapping shots of Trump being chummy with his new pals.

At Friday’s White House briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked if Trump believes the Russians tried to interfere in 2016. Spicer answered, “He said Russia probably interfered but maybe some other countries did as well.”

Where’s the outrage? It’s not in the briefing room.

Another reporter asked if Trump would use the G-20 meeting to say to Putin “that U.S. officials believe that Russia poses a risk to the 2018 and 2020 elections, and the United States would like Russia to be on notice or on warning that the United States disapproves of this?”

“If and when there’s a meeting,” Spicer answered, “we will have a readout for you.”

“Of course they’ll meet,” said Stewart — and when they do, Trump “needs to flex his muscle.”

“The president has always felt like any talk about Russian interference is a Democratic attempt to undermine his victory,” Stewart added.

Democratic strategist Maria Cardona put Trump’s attitude another way. Trump, she said, does not take the Russian investigation seriously. “The only thing that matters to him is if he is under investigation.”

Now, Stewart said, it’s time to get that out of his head. Trump “needs to be wide-eyed as to the dangerous impact of Russian interference” by drawing a line in the sand, and actually enforcing it.

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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