Did President Obama “choke,” as his successor has now taken to claiming, by failing to respond more aggressively to the Russian hacking of the 2016 elections?
For President Trump to say so carries more than a whiff of hypocrisy given that even now he refuses to unreservedly accept that the Russians were responsible and in nearly six months in office has done nothing about it himself. But even top Democrats are now increasingly acknowledging that he may have a point about Obama.
Obama’s former national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, says as much in a new interview for The Global Politico, telling me there’s “no doubt about it” that Obama should have publicly pinned the blame on the Russians much sooner and taken more aggressive steps to retaliate.
Donilon, a Washington lawyer and longtime Democratic player going back to his days as a junior staffer in Jimmy Carter’s White House, advised Obama through many of the key moments of his early presidency and went on to help lead the national security transition for what he expected to be the Hillary Clinton administration. Normally cautious, careful and exacting, Donilon argues that Obama as early as last summer should have made “aggressive public attribution” that Russia was responsible, long before the president ultimately did so last October just a few weeks before the election.
“Given the fact that they were attacking a fundamental element of our democracy,” Donilon says in the interview, the Obama administration should have been “pushing back harder and publicly” rather than worrying so much about appearing to use the national security apparatus for partisan ends or assuming a Clinton victory would end the matter. That “would have been a better course of action, frankly.”
Donilon’s comments about the response to what he saw as a decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to adopt “an aggressively hostile posture” toward the United States come at a moment when the story of the Russia hacking has taken its latest bizarre twist. Trump and Putin had their long awaited first face-to-face meeting Friday in Germany, and news of their encounter on the sidelines of the annual G-20 summit was quickly dominated by disputes over just what Trump said or didn’t say to Putin about the hacking.
The Kremlin crowed that Trump had “accepted” Putin’s denial of responsibility, while the Trump team claimed the president—who as recently as the day before the meeting said publicly the hacking might have been the work not only of Russia but of “other people and/or countries”—pushed Putin on it for nearly 40 minutes out of the two-hour-long session. But even by their account, it hardly ended on an adversarial note, with Trump giving off “very positive” vibes with the Kremlin leader, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it, and agreeing, as Trump said in his own tweetstorm Sunday morning, that “it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia.”
Incredibly, Trump even claimed to be discussing a new “Impenetrable Cyber Security unit” to be launched jointly with Putin—a plan that immediately drew widespread ridicule from politicians in both parties back in Washington, who largely agreed with Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio that teaming up with Putin to stop hacking would be akin to teaming up with Syrian leader Bashar Assad on preventing the use of chemical weapons. By Sunday evening, even Trump was disavowing the idea he had floated hours earlier – “Trump cyber tweets cause dismay, confusion,” read the POLITICO headline..
But while Trump found himself under bipartisan criticism for his handling of the Putin meeting, it is still worth looking back at Obama’s choices when he was in office. It is not true, as Trump has said, that Obama “did nothing” on the Russia hacking, but inside the former president’s team and the wider Democratic community a largely behind-the-scenes debate is in fact roiling about whether he did enough. I have personally spoken with three former top Obama administration officials who recounted their unsuccessful lobbying of the Obama White House to do more last summer and fall.
Even the quote that Trump can’t help himself from repeating about Obama having “choked” comes not from some Republican out to tarnish the former president’s legacy but from an Obama adviser, quoted anonymously in a recent Washington Post story as saying, “I feel like we sort of choked.”
And yet it’s still hard to get most Democrats to engage in the discussion—at least on the record—at a time when Trump’s hypocrisy leaves them, understandably, spitting mad. “There’s a deep contradiction in President Trump’s statements,” Donilon says. “I don’t know how you can say it didn’t happen or maybe it didn’t happen or others might have done it and then criticize President Obama for not responding to something that might not have happened.”
It’s not just Russia. This is the challenge in evaluating Obama’s legacy on foreign policy more broadly: Rather than being judged on its own merits, it is seen in reflection of Trump’s. But just because Trump has in many cases done the opposite does not mean that what Obama did was right or wrong. On Syria, Libya, Iraq and Asia as well as Russia, Obama’s international successes — and setbacks — deserve to be scrutinized on their own, the better to understand how we got to the point we are today.
Donilon serves as a useful interlocutor on this point, both as architect and self critic, someone who has spent a career in Democratic politics and foreign policy who had the chance to translate a president’s ideas into reality and came to discover what he thought went right—and what he thought did not.
Donilon, invariably and correctly described in profiles as a “cautious Washington lawyer” who served as “Obama’s Gray Man,” remains an Obama loyalist, of course, and he is a canny inside player who avoided the controversial limelight associated with his successor as national security adviser Susan Rice, a lightning rod among Republicans to this day. When we met in his office at the law firm O’Melveny & Myers, where he returned in 2014 to serve as vice chairman, Donilon spent much of our conversation defending Obama’s leadership and what was by all accounts a very process-intensive, White House-driven national security policy.
“U.S. leadership was quite present,” he argues to those who call the Obama presidency a period of global retrenchment on the part of the United States, “and in ways that it is not right now and people are very concerned about it.” Donilon points to the Paris climate accords, which Trump has promised to withdraw from; the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has threatened to renegotiate but has more or less accepted; and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Trump abandoned. “None of these things would have happened absent the United States,” says Donilon, “and I think that this is what allies around the world are concerned about.”
But the interview also made clear you don’t have to be cheerleading for Trump to find much that’s worth looking back critically at today when it comes to Obama’s foreign policy record.
On the global crisis of the moment in North Korea, for example, Donilon readily acknowledges “all the dimensions of the North Korea situation have gotten worse” in recent years, culminating in last week’s successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could theoretically reach Alaska with a nuclear weapon on board.
And it’s a development he blames on failures of American leaders, including Obama, going back more than a decade.
A key moment, he argues, came in 2003, when an agreement on North Korea’s suspending its nuclear weapons program reached under President Bill Clinton fell apart under President George W. Bush with the disclosure that Pyongyang had a secret uranium enrichment program. “I think we made a terrible mistake then, frankly, in that we didn’t keep in place the arrangement that we had,” Donilon says. “We rather walked away from the whole thing and that essentially freed the North Koreans, I think, to pursue without constraint, its program.”
As for the fact that North Korea’s success building the ICBM clearly came on Obama’s watch, Donilon acknowledges North Korea wasn’t the top agenda item it will now need to be for Trump.
“This was a priority but we also had a lot of other things going on in the world, to be frank,” he says, noting there are enhanced measures short of war that Trump could now take that Obama did not, such as interdiction programs and secondary sanctions on financial institutions around the world similar to those used to bring Iran to the bargaining table with Obama. “There’s a lot of space here for pressure on North Korea that we haven’t filled in yet,” he says.
But Donilon’s bottom line is that, when it comes to stopping North Korea’s march toward a nuclear weapon, “we haven’t been successful”—including his former boss.
As our interview drew to an end, I asked Donilon what, with the benefit of hindsight, he most regrets—or wishes he could get another crack at. He named three issues.
Not surprisingly, the long-running Syrian civil war was one, with its hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of displaced people. Wary of being drawn into yet another Middle Eastern war with no obvious exit, Obama refused the entreaties of most of his advisers over the years to do more—including when he drew his infamous “red line” on Assad’s use of chemical weapons in August 2012 only to refuse to enforce it when it was crossed later. Donilon mentioned that – but focused even more on the events of 2015, when Russia surprised the world by intervening militarily on behalf of the teetering Assad regime and Obama again chose not to respond. It was, Donilon suggests, another tantalizing might-have-been, a moment in time when, compared with today, “there were more options for the U.S. to influence the circumstances because the Assad regime was on its back.”
Another regret that makes Donilon’s list was failing to finalize the TPP before the clock ran out on the Obama years.
The TPP was meant to be Obama administration’s signature trade agreement, the economic centerpiece of a strategic “pivot to Asia” that Donilon and others championed but that was never fully realized amid the continued distractions of the wars in the Middle East. One of Trump’s first major acts in office was to withdraw from the TPP, a decision Donilon calls “a significant blow to the United States” and one that has left “openings for China” to step in as the region’s new heavyweight in America’s stead.
Donilon’s other regret—“number one” in importance, he says—is about the precarious state of America’s cybersecurity. Obama late in his presidency named Donilon to chair a bipartisan commission on cyber, and Donilon tells me he came out of it concerned about “uneven” defenses, a barely understood new set of threats from the rapidly proliferating and insecure internet of things, a distinct lack of expertise and awareness inside the government—and, most of all, a political culture that’s made a partisan issue out of the hacking of the 2016 election.
“This entire Russia thing should be nonpartisan, right?” Donilon says. “It doesn’t have to have anything to do with the ultimate outcome of President Trump’s election. It has to do with the security of our democracy.”
So is it second-guessing, pointless in-the-rearview-mirrorism to look back at the Obama years when we are in the midst of the extraordinary disruptions Trump is bringing to the White House?
I don’t think so.
Donilon is hardly uncritical of Trump. Much of our interview was taken up with his persistent, though invariably polite, critiques of Trump’s national security record, his lack of a true foreign policy team or clear process, murkiness about what his policy actually is, unsettling of our allies and confusing and contradictory statements about Russia and other matters.
But there are lessons learned in what Obama tried and failed to do – especially as Trump now looks at many of the same problems. Should he reset relations with Russia? Surge more troops into a teetering Afghanistan? Those were two of the biggest foreign policy debates of Obama’s first years in office.
It’s not heresy or false equivalence to say things in Kabul or Damascus, Beijing or Moscow, didn’t exactly work out as Obama hoped. Nor is it Trumpian fake news or alternative reality.
It’s just the facts.