On the American left, the issue of Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election has become deeply entangled with lingering resentments from the Democratic primary.
This is often stated explicitly. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald told Amy Goodman that it’s “very obvious” that it’s “exceptionally important to Democratic partisans to believe that the reason they lost this election is not because they chose a candidate who was corrupt and who was extremely disliked and who symbolized all of the worst failings of the Democratic Party.” The Nation’s own Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote in The Washington Post that “Clinton supporters inflate the importance of the purported Russian hacks to excuse her painful defeat” and “see the scandal as a way to undermine Trump.”
The problem with thinking about the allegations in these terms is that the 2016 election is over and Hillary Clinton has said she will not run for president again. But another Democrat will challenge Trump in 2020, and other Western countries—among them Germany, France, and the Netherlands—are worrying about similar attempts by the Kremlin to influence their own upcoming elections. Their intelligence agencies, like our own, tell us that a notably authoritarian right-wing government is likely to continue to intervene in these races on behalf of candidates who share at least some of its interests, and it’s especially important for progressives to take those claims seriously.
Another problem with attributing allegations of Russian meddling to “Clinton supporters” is that most prominent Democrats have so far taken the position that the intelligence community’s findings are troubling and require a full investigation—a position that’s shared by Greenwald and vanden Heuvel, as well as a number of prominent Republicans.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders told CNN that he thinks the “evidence is overwhelming” that “Russia did play a very harmful role, [an] unacceptable role” in the election, and that hacking the Democratic National Committee was Russia’s way of helping to “elect a candidate of their choice…[and] also an effort to try to undermine in a significant way American democracy.”
Finally, if someone really wanted to excuse Clinton’s role in Trump’s election, he or she would be on much more solid ground by blaming FBI Director James Comey’s “October Surprise,” which, unlike Russian meddling, had a demonstrable impact on the race.
Of course, it’s healthy to be skeptical of the intelligence community’s findings, especially when much of the reporting is based on unnamed sources. But it’s possible to take skepticism too far and demand that we apply an unusual evidentiary standard to the issue, dismissing the intelligence community’s conclusions because they haven’t declassified the raw intelligence or offered a smoking gun or proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
That’s a standard that we expect in a criminal trial, but it’s not a standard that we usually apply to debates like this one. We don’t have absolute proof that Donald Trump refused to release his tax returns because they’d reveal a closet full of skeletons, but we can say with reasonable confidence that this is the case based on what we know about how he operates and runs his businesses. When a legislator drowning in campaign cash from some industry consistently votes in line with that industry’s interests, we conclude that there’s a connection even if we lack hard evidence of a quid pro quo.
The question of what evidentiary standard to apply to this question was at the heart of the “dispute” between the CIA and the FBI. As Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous wrote in The Washington Post, the FBI, “true to its law enforcement roots, wants facts and tangible evidence to prove something beyond all reasonable doubt. The CIA is more comfortable drawing inferences from behavior.”
We should also be comfortable drawing inferences from behavior. We’re not, as some claim, relying only on the word of the CIA. We’re drawing conclusions from a preponderance of the available evidence, and looking at the larger context to evaluate the intelligence community’s findings.
We know for a fact, from what intelligence agencies call “open sources”—including independent media analyses—that Russian state-sponsored media were relentlessly anti-Clinton, and consistently promoted Trump’s claims that the system was hopelessly rigged against him. According to Reuters, those narratives followed a blueprint laid out in two confidential documents developed by a Russian think tank “run by retired senior Russian foreign intelligence officials appointed by Putin’s office.” The documents “provided the framework and rationale for what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was an intensive effort by Russia to interfere with the Nov. 8 election,” and were “circulated at the highest levels of the Russian government.”
Independent analysts, like Thomas Rid, a professor of security studies at King’s College London who was quoted by Max Fisher in The New York Times, have also detailed the Russian government’s dark PR campaign, in which front groups for the Kremlin pitched stories that were damaging to Hillary Clinton to American reporters eager for something to write about. So it’s safe to assume that the Russian government had a dog in this fight.
Its motives for taking sides in the election are fairly straightforward—during the campaign, Trump made it clear that his positions on certain key issues were more favorable toward Russian interests than were Hillary Clinton’s. Many observers agree that Russia wants to undermine the Western alliance, and Trump repeatedly blasted NATO as “obsolete” during the campaign. In May, he went so far as suggesting the United States might withdraw from the 70-year-old security pact entirely. In July, he said that if he were elected, he wouldn’t necessarily defend our NATO allies if they were attacked by Russia or another power. (About two months after his inauguration, he reversed course, with the White House “re-affirm[ing]” its “strong commitment” to NATO.)
We know that Putin blamed the US State Department, then led by Hillary Clinton, for fomenting protests in response to his 2012 election win—one tainted by widespread accusations of fraud. There’s no question the Russian government has bristled under a US-led sanctions regime imposed after the annexation of Crimea; Trump said he’s open to lifting them. In February, The New York Times reported that “Trump cast doubt on whether Moscow is backing separatists engaged in the recent escalation of fighting in eastern Ukraine, appearing to side with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has long denied involvement in the conflict despite evidence to the contrary.”
Last week’s airstrikes against forces loyal to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad put the Trump administration at loggerheads with Russia. Eric Trump appeared to validate the most cynical reading of the regime’s motives for the action this week when he told The Telegraph, “if there was anything that Syria did, it was to validate the fact that there is no Russia tie.” But what’s important here is the degree to which it represented an 180-degree turnaround from what Trump said during the 2016 campaign. At the time, he praised Russia’s intervention and suggested partnering with Vladimir Putin in his ostensible campaign to defeat ISIS, which, news coverage of the conflict suggests, appears to have been more focused on keeping Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in power than destroying the terror group. Just one week before the missiles flew, the Trump regime appeared to align itself with that approach by announcing that Assad’s ouster is “no longer a priority” for the United States.
We don’t need to take the intelligence community’s word for the fact that the Russian government maintained contact with members of Trump’s “immediate entourage” throughout the campaign. That information came directly from Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, according to the Interfax news agency. (After that story broke, the Russian foreign ministry backpedaled, saying they merely maintained contact with Trump supporters.)
The US intelligence community concluded that Putin wanted a Trump victory, “in part because [Putin] had previous success dealing with ‘Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia,’” reported The New York Times, and Trump has surrounded himself with people who have exactly those kinds of interests with Russia. Most notable among this group is Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, whose close working relationship with Putin dates back to the late 1990s. Paul Manafort, who briefly served as Trump’s campaign manager, allegedly received almost $13 million in “undisclosed cash payments” from a pro-Russian party in Ukraine. Last summer, the FBI successfully obtained a FISA warrant to monitor another former Trump advisor, Carter Page, for allegedly acting as a foreign agent on the Russian government’s behalf. Politico reported that national-security officials “expressed interest in the activities” of Konstantin Kilimnik, “a Kiev-based operative with suspected ties to Russian intelligence who consulted regularly with Paul Manafort last year while Manafort was running Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.” And then there’s the odd story, reported by The Washington Post, of Erik Prince, the notorious mercenary and brother to Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, attending “a secret meeting” in the Seychelles in January with “a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication.”
Allegations of Russian intervention on Trump’s behalf are also consistent with Vladimir Putin’s strategy of forming alliances with other right-wing nationalist movements across Europe. It’s been widely reported that the Russians have promoted hard-right political parties across the continent—and in at least one case provided funding, by extending a bank loan to France’s National Front—in order to promote politicians with friendlier views of Russia and hostility toward the European project.
As for whether the Russians hacked into the DNC and/or John Podesta’s e-mail account, we can’t say for sure, but we do know that the Kremlin’s attempts to influence political outcomes in Europe have typically combined the kind of disinformation campaign we saw in the 2016 election with cyber warfare. CNN reported that “in several former Soviet republics, top security officials and even a former president are saying ‘I told you so’ amid allegations of possible Russian hacking targeting the US presidential election campaign.”
Luke Harding, a former Moscow bureau chief for The Guardian and author of A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and Putin’s War With the West, says that while he understands reservations about the so-called “deep state,” one has to “look at what’s been happening elsewhere—you can’t decontextualize what happened in America. In my view, this was an opportunistic, low-budget hacking operation that ended up with a spectacular success and Donald Trump in the White House. Just look around—talk to German intelligence officials and they say the same thing happened to their parliament in 2015. They’re anxious it will happen again. The Italians and Czechs say they’ve been hacked. Either the intelligence services of every single Western democracy are idiots, or something really is going on here. This is a classic Kremlin operation.”
And suspicions that Russia followed the blueprint in the 2016 election aren’t based solely on the opinion of US intelligence agencies. Multiple analyses independent of our intelligence agencies, including those from three different cyber-security firms (one of which was hired by the DNC)—have come to the conclusion that the Russian government was likely behind the hacks. Then there are various technical analyses which have come to similar conclusions.
It’s only in the context of all of this information from disparate sources that we get the US intelligence community’s finding that Russia was responsible for election-related hacks. Skeptics often point to the faulty intelligence that helped lead to the Iraq War. But in this case, the conclusion that Russia intervened in the presidential election reflects a near consensus among the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and European intelligence agencies. (The CIA and the FBI—which, according to Reuters, are conducting three separate investigations into the matter—both expressed “high confidence” in the finding, while the NSA says it has “moderate confidence” in the assessment.) Both Democrats and Republicans who were privy to the classified briefings on the intelligence expressed concern about what they’d heard.
As for whether this is all part of an effort by our “deep state” to undermine Trump—a “coup,” as Patrick Lawrence describes it—Harding and his colleagues at The Guardian reported that it was the British intelligence agency GCHQ that first alerted American authorities to “suspicious ‘interactions’ between figures connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents” in 2015. Then, “over the next six months, until summer 2016, a number of western agencies”—including those of Germany, Estonia, and Poland—“shared further information on contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russians.”
Those who are skeptical of the evidence are right that no public information offers definitive proof. We haven’t seen the raw intelligence, and no orders signed by Vladimir Putin, or recordings of discussions between Russian officials and Wikileaks, have been unearthed. At a very minimum, an independent investigation is needed to restore confidence in our system—and most skeptics agree with that. But what we have now is a significant amount of circumstantial evidence to back up the unclassified intelligence findings. So regardless of whether one wants to condemn or absolve Hillary Clinton—or to push the Democratic Party toward the left or the right—there’s no reason to conclude that it all just points to a “deep state” campaign to undermine Trump.