It happens every time our presidency is transitioning from one party to the other.
Sooner or later, one of the Incomings proclaims something that sounds, to oversensitive incumbent ears, a bit too much like policymaking. And then, one of the Outgoings reflexively dishes out this oldest chestnut: “America only has one president at a time.”
But throughout this past week, as pandemic-besieged Americans saw increasingly perilous news that a major new Russian cybersecurity attack has put us at “grave risk,” we began to doubt that old chestnut. Because, each time we looked to President Donald Trump’s White House for the assurance and leadership only a commander in chief can provide, all we heard back was the sound of silence.
Perhaps we have one less president than we thought. (Or, to be precise: Perhaps we have one fewer fully functioning president – one who is on the job, in touch with reality, safeguarding our security and not wallowing in self-pity – than we know we need to have.) We know the world cannot feel safe with a POTUS who’s gone AWOL.
Trump has never been known as the strong silent type. In Helsinki, back at the summit of 2018, Trump’s words made him world-famous. He stood beside Vladimir Putin and spoke the words he knew would please his dictatorial pal: He discounted all U.S. intelligence conclusions that Russia cyber-influenced the 2016 U.S. election and helped make Trump what he is today – and took Putin at his word. “President Putin says it’s not Russia,” Trump explained. “I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Beginning last Sunday, when the news about the Russian cyberattacks first broke, reports about just what the Russians were able to do, how easily they seemed to have defeated our vaunted national defenses and the danger it now poses for us all, grew with exponential severity.
By Thursday, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued a public statement that said the attackers had penetrated U.S. agency systems since March and that the breach “poses a grave risk to the Federal Government and state, local, tribal, and territorial governments as well as critical infrastructure entities and other private sector organizations.”
The attackers gained access through third-party contractors at a software company called SolarWinds Orion, that then penetrated the cybersecurity firm FireEye, that had government agencies as their clients. The list of compromised agencies expanded all week. Politico reported that among the agencies the Russians had successfully penetrated were the Energy Department and National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons and weapons grade material.
While Trump remained uncharacteristically silent, his own former homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, spoke out urgently in a New York Times op-ed: “If it is Russia, President Trump must make it clear to Vladimir Putin that these actions are unacceptable. … An intrusion so brazen and of this size and scope cannot be tolerated by any sovereign nation. We are sick, distracted, and now under cyberattack. Leadership is essential.”
Americans also got to experience the sort of Republican presidential leadership that might have been. The GOP’s 2012 presidential candidate, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, forcefully told SiriusXM radio: “I think the White House needs to say something aggressive about what happened. This is almost as if you had a Russian bomber flying undetected over the country, including over the nation’s capital, and not to respond in a setting like that is really stunning.”
And mainly, as Americans and an uneasy world witnessed the week’s bad news spooling out while the onetime leader of the free world remained stuck on mute, we all got a sample of the sort of presidential leadership that is less than five weeks away.
“I want to be clear: My administration will make cybersecurity a top priority at every level of government – and we will make dealing with this breach a top priority from the moment we take office,” President-elect Joe Biden said in a statement.
“We will elevate cybersecurity as an imperative across the government, further strengthen partnerships with the private sector, and expand our investment in the infrastructure and people we need to defend against malicious cyberattacks …”
America’s 46th president added: “Our adversaries should know that, as president, I will not stand idly by in the face of cyber assaults on our nation.”
And so it goes. It’s a long-awaited shot of relief heard round the world: In a true global leadership sense, America still has one presidential leader at a time.
Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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