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The president of the United States, like all elected officials and public servants, swears to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies. But there is one responsibility the president must bear alone, and that is the obligation to act as the commander in chief, the guardian of our national security and the defender of our nation from malevolent foreign powers. The Mueller report makes clear that Donald Trump has failed miserably in this sacred obligation, and instead has traded his constitutional duty for his own safety.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusions laid to rest some — but not all — of the legal issues surrounding the Russian attempts to subvert our democratic processes. As the report notes, Mueller’s team could not find a specific agreement between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to cooperate in an operation against American institutions.
For this, we should be grateful, but that’s about as far as the good news goes.
As a team of writers at Lawfare put it, Trump’s people “were aware the Russians sought to help them win. They welcomed that assistance. Instead of warning the American public, they devised a public relations and campaign strategy that sought to capitalize on Russia’s illicit assistance. In other words, the Russians and the Trump campaign shared a common goal, and each side worked to achieve that goal with basic knowledge of the other side’s intention. They just didn’t agree to work toward that goal together.”
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As a candidate and as a citizen, Trump had a responsibility to put a stop to this unethical and dangerous behavior in his organization. He had an obligation to report it to the FBI, and to work with the government to thwart the Russian efforts. Instead, he knowingly allowed his campaign and some of the people closest to him to continue their contacts with the Russians, and then he spent months lying, encouraging others to cover for him, and gaslighting an entire nation with talks of witch hunts and hoaxes.
This is execrable behavior from a citizen. But a citizen has the right to be execrable and to do bad things, as lawyers would say, that are “lawful but awful.” As president, however, it is now clear from the Mueller report that Trump knows, and has known for years, what Mueller knew. He knows that the Russian assault on the U.S. political system was real, sustained and serious. He knows now that he is surrounded by people who tried to benefit from that attack on his behalf. He knows that it is likely to happen again.
A president determined to fulfill his duty to protect the nation would admit these realities. He would come before the American people and their representatives with an admission, at the least, of poor judgement, and a plan to fight the continuing Russian attacks on our country. But Trump is still engaged in glorious gaslighting, with his partisans declaring victory while trying to focus the public’s attention on the few issues where the news media — who amazingly got the story mostly right — ended up chasing bad leads about immensely complicated matters into dead ends.
A president determined to defend the nation would take the Mueller report as a mark of shame, and then support a full and bipartisan investigation of the security of our election process. A president who takes seriously his oath as commander in chief would, in a better administration, be in shock to realize the astonishing level of penetration of his inner circle by agents of the Russian Federation. He would clean house and demand to know how his own campaign and how people who might still have access to the West Wing became threats to national security.
A commander in chief who cared about the country would put the Russians on notice, and would do everything in his power to protect the institutions of American democracy.
None of that will happen because Trump is less concerned about his role as commander in chief than he is about his own safety and reputation. Leave the lawyers to argue over whether laws were broken about things like obstruction; let Congress debate what price, if any, to exact in the political process. Let us forget about Attorney General William Barr’s shameful display on Thursday morning, and accept that he is yet another Trump appointee who is willing to commit political suttee and throw his reputation on the burning bier that is the Trump administration.
But we cannot look away from what is now, in the light of day, the undeniable reality that President Trump has no intention of defending this country from the Russians. At every turn, Trump has sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin against his own intelligence and law enforcement professionals. He has accepted Putin’s lies and denials, despite the fact — as we know now — that Russian interference was a fact and that Trump not only knew of it, but presided over a bunch of half-witted, morally compromised and unpatriotic minions who were trying to figure out how to make hay out of the Russian offers of help rather than doing their duty and calling the FBI.
Russia attacked our democracy. Trump and his cronies knew it and were glad for it. As president, Trump has steadfastly refused to accept his responsibility to do anything about this assault on our institutions. This is a dereliction of duty, and it continues even now.
Donald Trump is the president and the commander in chief until Congress or voters say he is not. But nothing will ever change the fact that Robert Mueller has dragged into the light one of the greatest and darkest stains on a presidency in U.S. history.
Tom Nichols is a national security professor at the Naval War College, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of "The Death of Expertise." The views expressed here are solely his own. Follow him on Twitter: @RadioFreeTom
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mueller report: Donald Trump failed us as commander in chief