Criticism of Trump Shifts From ‘Collusion’ to ‘Inaction’: ‘Dereliction’ of His Duty to Defend the Country

By Susan Jones | June 29, 2017 | 9:04am EDT
Ambassador Nicholas Burns, now a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, testified before the Senate intelligence committee on Wednesday, June 29, 2017. (Screen grab from C-SPAN)

( – Ambassador Nicholas Burns, who held various diplomatic posts in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, told Congress on Wednesday that President Obama, in hindsight, “should have acted more resolutely, quickly” to tell the American people about Russian attempts to interfere with the U.S. election.

But at least Obama eventually did take action, imposing sanctions on Russia, Burns noted. “And what disturbed me about President Trump is that he's not investigating, has taken no action.”

“It is his duty -- President Trump's -- to be skeptical of Russia," Burns said. "It's his duty to investigate and defend our country against a cyber offensive. Because Russia's our most dangerous adversary in the world today, and if he continues to refuse to act, it's a dereliction of the basic duty to defend the country.”

Burns outlined the case against Trump in his opening statement at Wednesday’s hearing:

I served in the government for a long time. I served both parties as a Foreign Service officer. And I find it dismaying and objectionable that President Trump continues to deny the undeniable fact that Russia launched a major cyber attack against the United States, regardless of what party he launched it against.

He's (Putin) done the same thing in Europe, very systematically. And yet in response to that, President Trump has refused to launch an investigation of his own. He's not made this an issue in our relationship with the Russians.

He's taken no steps, at least that I'm aware of, with the Congress and state and local governments to strengthen our voting systems from future Russian hacking of our midterm elections in 2018 and of the next presidential election in 2020. There is no indication he's asked his senior Cabinet officials to develop a plan to protect the United States and to deter the Russians.

And his failure to act -- and I'm a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, I was President George W. Bush's ambassador -- we have a political responsibility in NATO to protect each other, not just from armed conventional attacks, but from cyberattacks as well. That's a clear failure.

I've worked for both parties. It's inconceivable to me that any of President Trump's predecessors would deny the gravity of such an open attack on our democratic system. I don't believe any previous American president would argue that your own hearings in the Senate are a waste of time or, in the words of President Trump, a ‘witch hunt.’ They're not. You're doing your duty that the people elected you to do.

It is his duty -- President Trump's -- to be skeptical of Russia. It's his duty to investigate and defend our country against a cyber offensive. Because Russia's our most dangerous adversary in the world today, and if he continues to refuse to act, it's a dereliction of the basic duty to defend the country.

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) asked Burns if it’s fair to say that the Russians “have taken no active measures in an American election” since Trump became president.

“I actually don't know,” Burns said.

There have been four special congressional elections, including the hotly contested race in Georgia’s 6th district, since Trump took office.

“And you think that the Russians have taken some active measures in those elections?” Risch asked Burns.

“I don't know the answer to that question,” Burns said.

“We do know that the Russians took active measures in the last presidential election,” when Obama was still in office, Risch said. The senator added that Obama “could have done something about this while it was going on.”

Burns said Obama reportedly spoke to Putin about the interference, and he also briefed the eight senior members of Congress “early on.” And the administration released a statement on the Russian interference in early October. “So they did take action," Burns said. "It's not as if the Obama administration just was silent on this issue.”

Risch asked Burns what else President Obama should have done:

“You know -- and this is Monday morning quarterbacking by me,” Burns said. “And I appreciate the fact that he finally did take action on the sanctions. I think if you -- if you go back and look at it, the American people, in my judgment, deserve to know what was happening clearly -- have to ring the village bell, and we should have had a more immediate response that was painful to the Russians, whether that was immediate sanctions or some type of offensive action, that we could have taken by covert means against them.

“And so, I think, there are a variety of options. I wasn't there, so I don't want to micromanage this, but I do think that he could have done more. But my testimony clearly shows that President Trump has taken no action, whatsoever, and I think that's irresponsible,” Burns said.

“Got that,” Risch said. He asked Burns if the Obama administration should have countered the Russian interference by doing more to tell the American people about it.

“Well, I think that the Obama administration should have taken greater action," Burns said, "but the more pertinent question, today, is what our current president is not doing, and that is implications for Europe, and they're very negative.”

“To you it's more pertinent,” Risch said. “To me, what's more pertinent, is, what should have been done by the commander-in-chief who was in charge at that time.”

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