Skeptics of the widely accepted view that Russia conducted a multi-faceted propaganda and cyber-warfare campaign to influence last year’s elections often argue that there’s no evidence to support the claims. The fallacy they’re deploying here is straightforward: They’re conflating “evidence” with “proof.”
Many criminal convictions are obtained without video or DNA evidence, or some other slam-dunk proof. Prosecutors offer a theory of the case, and then support it with multiple pieces of evidence that would not themselves prove a defendant’s guilt when viewed in isolation. Individual pieces of evidence may speak to motive, means, or opportunity, or may be used to undermine the defense. They’re often the bricks with which prosecutors build a larger structure.
It’s true that we don’t yet have, and may never discover, a smoking gun that proves definitively that Russia ran a multi-pronged “active measures” campaign to help Trump get elected, or that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian operatives in doing so. Espionage operations are covert, often conducted through cutouts, and specifically designed to provide plausible deniability. Similarly, our own counter-intelligence agencies may never reveal everything they know because doing so would compromise classified sources and methods of obtaining information. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a mountain of evidence suggesting that the Kremlin expended significant resources to influence the outcome of last year’s elections, that Trump’s people were communicating with Russian agents during the campaign, and that those involved have since worked very hard to cover their trail.
The skeptics are correct that the findings of the intelligence community don’t constitute proof, but it would be odd to discount them as evidence. The conclusions of the CIA, FBI, NSA, and several allied intelligence agencies are the equivalent of experts testifying in a court of law. Their findings should carry greater weight given that the skeptics’ own experts have proven to be unqualified and uninformed. Trump’s decision to fire James Comey, and then explain on nationwide TV that he did so because of the Russia investigation, is evidence of a cover-up, as are the dozens of undisclosed contacts between members of Trump’s inner circles and Russian officials, and other characters who are close to the regime. E-mails from middlemen connected to Russian oligarchs offering help from the Russian government for Trump’s campaign, multiple attempts to set up covert back-channel communications between the Kremlin and Trump Tower, multiple indictments or guilty pleas for lying to investigators—all of these are solid pieces of evidence of something nefarious involving Russians and the 2016 campaign.