All hell broke loose when President Trump declared, with Vladimir Putin by his side, that he did not believe his own intelligence agencies who said that the Kremlin was behind the criminal cyberwar attack to disrupt the 2016 elections.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including a sizeable number of Republicans and some of Mr. Trump’s strongest supporters — from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to Fox News — came down on him like a ton of bricks.
Twenty-four hours later Mr. Trump was eating crow before the nation, reading haltingly from a script written by his most senior advisers, saying he had misspoken in some of his remarks and accepted his intelligence community’s unanimous conclusion that Russia was behind the scheme to influence the outcome of our elections.
“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” he said. But describing the tidal wave of falsehoods Moscow spread throughout our nation’s internet system as mere “meddling” doesn’t begin to describe the scale of Russia’s cyber warfare.
At the same time, however, he added that it still “could be other people also,” a specious claim not supported by any evidence whatsoever.
Mr. Trump has never condemned Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine or Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula. Quite the contrary, he falsely denied in an interview with ABC News that Russian troops were even in eastern Ukraine.
But the big news coming out of their 46-minute joint news conference in Helsinki Monday was Mr. Trump’s inability to defend his own government’s unimpeachable finding that Russia had attempted to sabotage our elections.
Mr. Putin insisted Russia played no role in that, but Mr. Trump never challenged him on that score by raising the Justice Department’s detailed indictments of 12 Russian intelligence officials for hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s emails, seeking dirt to help Mr. Trump’s campaign.
Mr. Trump “was particularly rattled by a critical tweet Monday from Newt Gingrich,” The Washington Post reported. “Gingrich, long a stalwart ally, urged the president on social media to ‘clarify’ his Helsinki statements, saying they were “the most serious mistakes of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately.”
“The United States is not to blame,” he said. “America wants a good relationship with the Russian people but Vladimir Putin and his thugs are responsible for Soviet-style aggression. When the president plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the news conference with Mr. Putin a “missed opportunity” for the president “to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections.”
Other lawmakers were angered by Mr. Trump’s remarks in Helsinki that included praise for Mr. Putin, criticism of the FBI, and the strange belief that the U.S. and Russia were both to blame for their strained relations.
“I never thought I would see the day when our American president would stand on the stage with the Russian president and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. “This is shameful.”
When Mr. Trump tweeted that “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”, that was the last straw for Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade. He called Mr. Trump “ridiculous” for his remark.
Meantime, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky suggested Tuesday that work has begun on a bill to combat foreign interference in the 2018 elections.
And Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado says he has introduced a bill that would require the State Department to determine if Russia should be declared a state sponsor of terrorism.
We’re still in the early rounds of this fight with Russia, and the security and integrity of our democratic elections hangs in the balance.
• Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.
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