Donald Trump has a way of sucking all the oxygen out of the room. Thus, the public debate over the hacking of the Democratic National Committee has evolved into a story of Trump vs. the intelligence community.
The spooks have concluded, with an unusual degree of certitude, that Russia was behind the hacking and that it was designed to elect Trump; Trump denies both conclusions, disparages the intelligence community, and purports to believe Julian Assange’s denials that the documents came from Russian intelligence.
This is admittedly a big story. It’s hard to think of a previous president who had such an openly adversarial relationship with the intelligence community even before assuming office, Jimmy Carter being the only remotely comparable precedent. But amid all the Trumpian hoopla, it’s easy to forget that he is not yet president and that the Russian hack occurred not on his watch but on Barack Obama’s.
Almost forgotten is the current president’s pathetically weak response to a concerted Russian attempt to interfere with the functioning of our democracy. The New York Times has documented how slow the FBI was to respond to the hacking of the DNC once it was detected and how Obama was unwilling to respond forcefully for fear of seeming partisan and getting involved in a tit-for-tat battle with Moscow. The most that Obama did to respond before the election was to allow his intelligence chiefs to issue a public statement attributing the attacks to Russia.
Obama waited until December 29 to exact any price for Putin’s transgressions. Even then, the retribution was minimal. All that Obama did was to expel from the U.S. 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives operating under diplomatic cover, close a couple of country houses used by Russian diplomats in the U.S., and impose sanctions on four top officers of the Russian military intelligence service–the GRU–which is suspected of being behind the DNC hack. In the normal course of business, this would have led Moscow to expel 35 U.S. diplomats in retaliation, but Putin cleverly up-ended expectations by refusing to do so, clearly pinning his hopes on President Trump to launch a policy of détente.
Putin is not normally known for being magnanimous. His willingness to overlook the American action shows just how inconsequential it was. The expulsions were undoubtedly unpleasant for the Russian operatives who were booted out; presumably, they had to pull their kids out of schools, hurriedly pack their belongings, and experience other inconveniences to leave the U.S. so quickly. But what does Putin care if Russian espionage in the U.S. is being carried out by the 35 expelled “diplomats”—or by their replacements?
If Obama really wanted to hurt Putin, he would have responded in kind by ordering the intelligence community to disclose embarrassing communications between the Kremlin boss and his underlings. Or, even better, by disclosing more details about how Putin steals billions from the long-suffering citizens of Russia. If the U.S. intelligence community has information on Putin’s off-shore banking accounts, it could leak that knowledge.
This, of course, is to list only two options on what was undoubtedly a long menu of retaliatory steps drawn up by the interagency process. One can imagine other steps ranging from imposing more biting financial sanctions on Russia to providing weapons to the Ukrainians to better defend themselves against Russian aggression to frying Russian computer systems. But Obama chose to do none of these things. It’s still possible that he ordered some covert action which remains secret but, given the way that Washington leaks, it seems unlikely. Even the use of the Stuxnet virus against Iranian computers, one of the most highly “compartmented” covert actions in recent history was revealed before long. As Senator Lindsay Graham said on Thursday, Obama tossed “pebbles” at Russia in retaliation rather than the “rocks” that were called for.
In sum, Obama basically gave Putin a pass for his cyberattack just as he basically gave him a pass for his invasion of Ukraine, his war crimes in Syria, and numerous other transgressions against international norms. And now Trump appears likely to lift even the relatively weak sanctions imposed by Obama. Obama, to his credit, did not praise Putin in public, as Trump has a disconcerting habit of doing, but there may be more continuity than either man may realize in their bipartisan policy of failing to stand up to Russian aggression.