Yes, Russian Election Sabotage Helped Trump Win
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s a Republican talking point: Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election, but it didn’t affect the outcome.
More likely than not, that’s wrong.
President Donald Trump repeatedly claims that no votes were affected — even on occasions when he acknowledges Russian meddling at all. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who says he is “1,000 percent certain that the Russians interfered in our election,” also insists it made no difference electorally. He recently tweeted: “Russia didn’t beat Clinton. Trump beat Clinton.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who as director of the Central Intelligence Agency helped oversee the investigation of Russian interference, has even gone so far as to assert that the intelligence community reached the same conclusion that Russian sabotage had minimal impact.
And on Tuesday, Trump one-upped all of them by claiming that Russia “will be pushing very hard for Democrats” in the 2018 midterm elections.
It’s hard to prove that Russia’s use of phony trolls and social media and its theft of email messages from prominent Democrats is what elected Trump. In an election as close as the 2016 balloting, many factors are always at play, and tactical errors by the Hillary Clinton campaign, her own shortcomings as a candidate and rogue public criticism of Clinton by FBI Director James Comey all figured in Trump’s victory.
But Pompeo was factually wrong about one thing: The intelligence community reached no conclusion about what did propel Trump to victory, at least not in public.
And now a number of experts familiar with the issue have come to believe that Russia did make a difference for Trump.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper now says the evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin swung the election to Trump “is staggering.” Noting that fewer than 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin decided the contest, he wrote in a book released in May, “I have no doubt that more votes than that were influenced by the massive effort by the Russians.”
Most Republicans dismiss Clapper as a Trump-hating supporter of his former boss, ex-President Barack Obama. But Clapper’s view will get powerful academic support soon. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a leading scholar of communications and its effect on American politics, has a book coming out in September that will present data in support of its case that Russian interference in 2016 was a decisive factor for Trump.
“The Russian trolls and hackers created message imbalances, the former in social media, the latter in news,” that helped the Republican, she said in an interview on Sunday. “The use that the mainstream and conservative media made of the Russian hacking of the Democrats’ emails altered the news and debate agendas in ways that past election research would suggest were significant enough to change the outcome.”
The book is “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President, What We Don’t, Can’t and Do Know.” Jamieson is a professor and former dean at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.
Contrary to the claims of most Republicans, there’s already a serious circumstantial case for the strong impact of Russian interference. NBC News and others have reported that there were thousands of Russian trolls amplifying phony reports like the fiction that Pope Francis endorsed Trump. Anecdotally, it’s obvious that these influenced some voters.
The leaks of emails sent by top Democrats played a role in setting the 2016 general election agenda. On the eve of the Democratic National Convention in July of 2016, for example, WikiLeaks released internal documents that U.S. intelligence agencies said were stolen by Russian hackers showing that the Democratic National Committee had favored Clinton over challenger Bernie Sanders in the primaries. That led to the resignation of the party chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and infuriated some Sanders supporters who later said that they sat out the general election.
In early October, almost immediately after a video surfaced in which Trump bragged about groping women, WikiLeaks released its first leak of emails from the account of Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. This happened on a Friday afternoon, not the best time to leak a story if the object is to get attention; the intent was almost certainly to deflect attention from the Trump video. An indictment of 12 Russian operatives last week by Special Counsel Robert Mueller traced the email hacks to a Russian military intelligence unit.
Beyond the effect on voters, the relentless drumbeat of articles about email leaks also forced the Clinton campaign to spend time reacting and making strategic adjustments. Eight days before the election, the New York Times ran a front-page story declaring that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had found no clear link between Russia and Trump, and that Moscow’s purpose was to disrupt the American election but not to help one candidate. Later, after the election, the Times reported on links between Trump and Russians during the campaign, and the American intelligence agencies concluded in a public report that the purpose was to help Trump.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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