David Remnick writes: I asked Clinton if she thought Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russians. “I don’t want to overstate what we already know publicly, but I think the compilation of coincidence adds up to something more than public support,” she said, referring to Trump’s refusal to criticize Putin (“Why should I tell Putin what to do?”) and his encouragement of Julian Assange (“I love WikiLeaks!”).
She went on, “The latest disclosure by Facebook about the targeting of attack ads, negative stories, dovetails with my concern that there had to be some information provided to the Russians by someone as to how best to weaponize the information that they stole, first from the Democratic Committee, then from John Podesta. And the refusal of the Trump Administration officials, both current and former, to admit to their involvements with Russians raises a lot of unanswered questions.” Putin’s motives, she said, went well beyond destabilizing a particular campaign. “Putin wants to undermine democracy, to undermine the Atlantic alliance, to undermine the E.U., to undermine nato, and to resurrect Russian influence as much as possible beyond the borders,” she said. “So the stakes are huge here.”
If, as Clinton told me, the Russians had deployed a “new form of warfare” to upend American democratic processes, what should President Obama have done in the closing act of the campaign? At a summit in China, Obama told Putin to back off from any election tampering, and he talked about the issue at a press conference. But he did not raise the stakes. Figuring that Clinton would win, Obama was wary of being seen as tipping the election to her and confirming Trump’s constant assertions that the vote was rigged against him. When the C.I.A. first told Obama, in August, that the Russians had been meddling in the Presidential race, the agency shared the information with the Gang of Eight—the congressional leadership and the chairs and the ranking members of the intelligence committees. The Administration asked for a bipartisan statement of warning. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, adamantly refused, muffling for weeks any sense of national alarm.
“I feel we sort of choked,” one senior Obama Administration official told the Washington Post. Another former Administration official said that national-security people were feeling, “Wow, did we mishandle this.” Clinton, in her book, gingerly “wonders” what the effect might have been had Obama gone on national television in the fall of 2016 “warning that our democracy was under attack.” I asked her whether Obama had failed—whether the issue should have been treated less as a narrowcasted political problem and more as a grave national-security threat.
“Well, I think that I’m very understanding of the position he found himself in,” she said. “Because I’ve been in that Situation Room, I know how hard these calls can be. And I believe that they struggled with this, and they were facing some pretty difficult headwinds.” She was less restrained in her description of the Senate Majority Leader’s behavior. “Mitch McConnell, in what I think of as a not only unpatriotic but despicable act of partisan politics, made it clear that if the Obama Administration spoke publicly about what they knew, he would accuse them of partisan politics, of trying to tip the balance toward me,” she said. “McConnell basically threatened the White House, and I know that was on the President’s mind. It was a predicament for him.” She also lambasted James Comey, the former F.B.I. director, who “refused to publicly acknowledge that there was an investigation, and, with the height of irony, said, ‘Well, you can’t do that so close to the election.’ ” (Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the investigation had not progressed to the point where disclosure would have been appropriate.)
All the same, I asked, did President Obama blow it?
Clinton paused, and spoke very carefully: “I would have, in retrospect now, wished that he had said something, because I think the American people deserved to know.”
In “What Happened,” Clinton, by way of demanding national resolve against a Russian threat, quotes a maxim attributed to Vladimir Lenin: “You take a bayonet and you push. If you hit mush, you keep going; if you hit steel, you stop.”
“Were we mush?” I asked about the Obama Administration’s response.
Now she did not hesitate. “I think we were mushy,” she said. “Partly because we couldn’t believe it. Richard Clarke, who is one of our nation’s experts on terrorism, has written a book about Cassandras,” unheeded predictors of calamity. “And there was a collective Cassandra out there—my campaign was part of that—saying, ‘The Russians are in our electoral system, the Russians are weaponizing information, look at it!’ And everybody in the press basically thought we were overstating, exaggerating, making it up. And Comey wouldn’t confirm an investigation, so there was nothing to hold on to. And I think that the point Clarke makes is when you have an initial occurrence that has never happened before, some people might see it and try to warn about it, but most people would find it unlikely, impossible. And what I fear is we still haven’t gotten to the bottom of what the Russians did.” [Continue reading…]
— Michael Weiss (@michaeldweiss) September 13, 2017