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Editorial: Russia's meddling in U.S. election should have triggered a tough response

Give former President Barack Obama this much: He was jammed between a rock and hard place in deciding how to respond to clear evidence – proof, really – of Russian interference in last year’s presidential election. He would have been criticized whatever course he took.

He took the wrong one.

Instead of publicly calling out Russia for its criminal meddling in the election, Obama mainly stayed silent. He did that for a reason. He worried that any public action would have given the appearance that he was inappropriately seeking to benefit Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Adding to the problem were Donald Trump’s baseless claims of a rigged election and his not-so-veiled threat not to accept the results of the voting.

Any president would have been duty-bound to consider such issues in deciding how to respond to efforts that, according to intelligence, were directly ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even then – even considering the significant political and diplomatic complications – this was a foreign country, a known and dangerous adversary, purposely working to damage one candidate and elect the other. That should have made the choice plain.

Obama’s clear responsibility was to the country and the Constitution. Against that backdrop, other concerns pale. He should have spoken up forcefully, providing as much evidence as possible without dangerously compromising methods or individuals.

The consequences of that failure have been disastrous. Had Obama acted, the effort might have been blunted and government today would be proceeding without congressional investigations and the appointment of a special counsel to examine Russia’s actions.

Interestingly – incredibly – one of Obama’s critics on this matter is President Trump. He says Obama should have done more, even though he has previously labeled reports of Russian interference as fake news. The president seems to want this argument both ways.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a rising star among Democrats, had the matter about right on Sunday. In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Schiff said that Obama’s failure to speak out was a “very serious mistake.”

But he also said that Trump “is in no position to complain here” since during the campaign he urged the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails. “To criticize Obama is now a bit like someone knowingly receiving stolen property blaming the police for not stopping the theft,” the former prosecutor observed.

That’s dead on. Still, the main criticism here has to be of Obama. He was president when this happened. It was he – not Trump, not Clinton – who had sworn to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This was a failure.

But now Trump also must act, instead of continuing to pretend this is a non-issue. It is he who now carries the burden of the presidential oath of office and he who must act to prevent Russia or other malevolent forces from attempting to corrupt the 2018 or 2020 elections.

Forceful action would also help to convince doubters that his connections to Russia aren’t the nefarious ones many believe them to be. By the same token, though, failure to act will be seen as evidence of at least timidity, which would require explaining, and possibly of collusion.

These men wanted to be president. They asked the country to support them. In this critical case, Obama failed. Trump is in the midst of his exam.

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