Hot microphones are a hell of a thing. In 2012, speaking with Dmitry Medvedev, who was then president of our great rival Russia, President Obama said, “After my election I have more flexibility.” Medvedev responded that he would transmit this information to Vladimir. As in, you know, Putin.
Oh, what a time it was. Russia was great friend; we had pushed the Staples reset button and were looking towards the future.
Let’s break this down. “After the election we have more flexibility.” Huh. This sounds a lot like asking a foreign leader to play a role in an American election. Let’s go a step further: this was an election in which Obama mocked his opponent, Republican Mitt Romney, for criticizing Russia. Remember that? Remember the debate when Obama said “the 1980s wants its foreign policy back”? But now, suddenly Russia is our greatest foe again. Funny how things work out.
So what was the deal with that conversation that nobody was supposed to hear? What exactly was Obama asking for? Was he asking the Russian president to act in a way that would help him in his reelection? It sounds like it. Was that an impeachable offense — asking a foreign power for help in a campaign? Was that a request for foreign interference in our elections? Who can say, right?
The question here is, when does an ask from a foreign power that can be considered a political win rise to the level of election interference? This is something Democrats should consider as they march off the cliff of impeaching President Trump. Was Obama asking the Russian president for “dirt” on Romney? No. But was he asking for actions that would help him win an election? It sure sounds like it.
If Obama wasn’t looking for a favor to help him win, then why mention the election at all? Was this flexibility, whatever it referred to, official U.S. policy? Had Obama been told by brave career diplomats to offer Medvedev more flexibility after the election? Or did Obama just make this offer on his own? Was it for his own benefit?
President Obama should probably be given the benefit of the doubt here. Was he asking for something that would help his electoral prospects? Yeah, he likely was. But could it also have been something he thought accrued to the national interest? Yes. And if that sounds familiar, it should.
The crux of the impeachment case against President Trump is that he asked a foreign power to do something that might potentially help his political chances, but the defense against that case is that Trump was also doing something that was in the interest of the United States. If Trump believed (and there is no reason to think he didn’t) that investigations into a corrupt gas company that hired Vice President Joe Biden’s son in an effort to sway U.S. policy was in the national interest, then there’s no offense.
The point here is not to drag Obama, but to point out that foreign policy always affects our presidential elections. It is a metric that voters use and value in evaluating a sitting president. Just ask Jimmy Carter, who lost his re-election campaign in the midst of the Iran hostage crisis.
There are pros and cons to our system that provides the opportunity to change the head of the executive branch every four years. One of the disadvantages is that other nations, particularly those like Russia that do not have free and fair elections, know they can wait a president out, and hope for better relations with the next one.
What is clear from the hot mic moment is that Obama was offering to do some thing or things after the election that he could not do prior to the election. And he was asking Russia to show patience and help that re-election happen. Was it a little sketchy? Yeah. Should Republicans in the House of Representatives have called for Obama’s impeachment? Of course not. But those were saner days.