Will the White House Prevent Russian Interference in 2020?
The Trump administration’s plan to protect our elections seems suspect for one reason
There’s something charismatic about President Donald Trump. Don’t judge by me, but that’s what many of his staffers and former staffers, whether they’ve been fired or quit, say about the president. So do his strongest backers. I don’t know whether it’s the narcissism, hubris, anger, yelling, thin skin, mean sense of humor or lack of kindness that draws people to Trump, but staffers and former supporters alike say there’s “just something about the guy.”
Maybe it’s the Rodney Dangerfield-esque suit he wears.
His fans do get angry with him, but he’s still their guy. Trump can, as he recently did, revel in an endorsement from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un for his candidacy for re-election—a notion that creeps out much of the free world, including his supporters and former staffers. Still, they smile and love him. Russian oligarchs love him. Rich oil princes with murder and lust in their hearts love him. Despots, quacks, thieves, con men, racists, nationalists, rich white men, poor white men, women, Jews, African-Americans, children, dipsomaniacs, those suffering from erectile dysfunction, anti-vaxxers, Christians, Satanists, ego-maniacs, NASCAR fans, WWF fans, NFL owners, Theresa May, the GOP, some veterans, and snake wranglers in Southern Florida all love the guy.
Teachers? Not so much, and ditto with the scientific community, unless they’re on the payroll of an oil company. Still, of those who say they love him or have served time shackled to the current Liar in Chief, few claim to trust Donald Trump.
Okay. None. Within a limited range of specific circumstances they trust some of what he says, but ultimately no one would trust him to return $100 if it were planted on the floor to test his character. The Donald doesn’t operate that way. More importantly, Donald doesn’t believe anyone else does, either. Everyone to Trump is working an angle. Being honest is for suckers. If Trump can’t figure your angle, he doesn’t trust you.
Meanwhile, he’s fired people. He’s had people fired. Some have quit and some have run screaming from the administration as if their hair had been set on fire. Trump told fired staffers he loved them. He promised some of those he fired other jobs in his administration in order to quietly get rid of them. He ignored them. He battled them. He belittled those who quit or were fired and when he could, he added gasoline to those running from him in flames. The Trump administration boils down to just one man, not a team. It’s the Donald show. You can’t get ahead of him on any issue, usually because Trump doesn’t know where he is on an issue until he makes up his mind at the last minute where to go.
There are no policy papers, gaggles with policy specialists or even press briefings any more. There’s just The Donald. His will is decided most often on a whim and supported by applause. He noses his way around an issue like a blind pig rutting for truffles. But all of that aside, former staffers also say you cannot underestimate him. He may well be bluffing about a great many things. He is flying by the seat of his pants. He’s out in the ozone, hunting through the nether regions for issues to keep you confused and angry—but that’s what makes him dangerous.
“If cornered, he could strike,” a former staffer told me. “That’s who he is.”
Recently, after telling me that he hoped there would be no war with Iran, Trump felt necessary to tweet a threat to Iran and double-down on the “I’m not kidding.” Trump may not want a war, but he doesn’t want the Iranians knowing that. He wants them as off-balance as everyone else who is trying to deal with his pugnacious persona. Some of his staunchest supporters love him for his ability; as one reporter quoted a Trump supporter, “Of wearing his balls outside his pants.”
Others see things differently, and a recent, rare public statement by Robert Mueller underlines those differences. That day started with ominous overtones. The president had no public appearances on his schedule, which is often a warning sign. Earlier that day an unidentified man set himself on fire outside of the South Lawn fence. He was the second person to do so in a month. Then there was a smell of smoke in the basement offices of the White House. We evacuated to find someone had accidentally set the outdoor ashtray on fire. It sits next to the primary air intake duct for the basement offices, hence the smell.
By 11 a.m., Mueller was making his first and presumably last statement as the special prosecutor. That, as it turned out, was fuel for the metaphoric fire at the White House. The temperature outside was around 90 degrees Fahrenheit and shortly after Mueller spoke, the press got a heads up that Sarah Sanders would be on Fox News at 1:30 p.m. Naturally, since press briefings are a thing of the past, we all stood out in the heat waiting for her. Afterward I said if I wanted to go deer hunting, I could’ve used my shirt as a salt lick. Sanders walked by on the way to her live shot and I asked if she would kindly stop back by and talk with us after she finished the segment.
“Well, it is kind of hot,” she said. I jerked my thumb toward the briefing room. “It’s nice and cool about 50 feet away in the briefing room,” I said. She kept walking.
She did come back and took questions for about 10 minutes. If she had a five-minute opening statement, it would’ve been the equivalent of one of her press briefings. Most reporters asked her about the Mueller report and the president being a con man with the morals and physical demeanor of a rabid wart hog from hell. Now that everyone from Barr to Mueller and even some of the members of Trump’s own administration have confirmed Russia systematically attacked the 2016 election, I wanted some assurances that something would be done. Moreover, I crafted the question to assume the president acknowledged the Russian meddling—even though he’s routinely called it a hoax.
“So moving forward, if you want to look forward, what is this administration going to do to make sure that in 2020—because everyone says, even Mueller and this administration has acknowledged, that Russia hacked our elections for the benefit of Donald Trump—what is this administration going to do to make sure that the 2020 elections are secure?” Sanders took the bait and acknowledged the Russians screwed us and committed the president, probably without his knowledge, to a corrective course of action he will never take.
“We’re going to do what the previous administration didn’t: First, acknowledge that there is a problem and try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We’ve taken a whole-of-government approach. The Department of Homeland Security has met with officials who conduct elections in all 50 states. We’re doing constant cooperation and coordination between all 50 states to try to prevent this from ever happening again. We take it very seriously, and we’ve taken a number of steps to make sure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past,” she said.
She didn’t specify the “number of steps” or anything else of significance, but it was a far cry from calling it a hoax. Perhaps there was hope yet.
That hope got burned to the ground a few hours later. Trump, clearly still roiling over Mueller’s statement that “If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” decided to hit back in a tweet around 8:30 p.m.
“How do you impeach a Republican President for a crime that was committed by the Democrats? WITCH-HUNT!”
The next morning, Trump tweeted out that he had nothing to do with the Russians helping him win the election, acknowledging that my question to Sanders had merit and providing ground work to implement some sort of strategy to prevent a reoccurrence. He changed course again when he appeared on the South Lawn and engaged the press at 7:30 a.m. in a 17-minute impromptu question and answer session. The narrative returned to his roots: The Russians didn’t help him win. He also later removed the tweet that admitted they had.
There is no current discussion about how to preserve the 2020 election. His fans still love him. Those who are not fans see those actions as just more evidence Trump is a liar, a con man and a tremendous slouch. Me? I’m still waiting for an honest answer, a well-thought out strategy, a unifying moment and, since it’s D.C. and nearly summer, one cool day with a breeze so my suit doesn’t turn into a salt lick.