On Thursday of last week, the most senior members of the intelligence community testified to the Senate that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Hillary Clinton’s email in order to undermine the Clinton campaign and influence the election. The same officials also testified that the hacks were authorized from the highest levels of Russia’s government. Of course, none of this is new. The only problem is that President-elect Trump has denied Russia’s involvement despite knowledge to the contrary.
Yesterday, Trump finally conceded Russia might be behind the hacks. Nonetheless, the press and many elected officials are stunned and have been left with the task of answering the questions: What are the next steps, and what should we make of this?
As a casual observer, I think there are several things that need to be clarified.
Every major D.C. scandal usually has two elements: substance and spin. In the case of Russian hacking, the substance is that Russia is our geopolitical foe, they meddled in our election, and our President-elect denied it. The spin is that Trump’s election victory is illegitimate because Russia successfully influenced the outcome. Both need to be examined.
First, the spin needs to be recognized. Russia did not “hack the election” in the sense that they infiltrated the election machines to fix numbers. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper acknowledged this. The Russians hacked Hillary Clinton’s email and the Democratic National Committee in order to expose information to sway the vote. Clinton, to the chagrin of Democrats and Republicans alike, jeopardized national security when she carelessly used a private email server. The DNC also ignored warnings from the FBI about the cyber attacks. But there is a practical difference in saying Russia hacked the election versus that they tried to influence the outcome through hacking.
To go even further, it is speculative to say that Russia cost Hillary the election. If we could do a regression analysis and discount Russia and the Wikileaks, I think Hillary would have probably still lost.
The same, however, cannot be said for James Comey’s letter. If I had to choose, the most decisive moment of the election was his letter to congress declaring the FBI was reopening its investigation a week before the election. The polling trends show Trump got a small bump, and the letter helped change the conversation from his alleged assault and the tape of his lewd comments. If Comey hadn’t sent his letter, Hillary would probably have won.
Despite this uncertainty, many have tried to use the Russian hacking to delegitimize the result. John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, refused to say the election was free and fair. On SNL, Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton put up a signs that read “I know I lost the election and we may never know why. **Cough** RUSSIA **Cough**.” Throughout the hearings, Sen. Tim Kaine seemed to imply that Russia’s hacking capabilities gave Trump the election.
These implications are just part of the spin. Americans can be confident that the outcome of the election was fair and free in the traditional sense of those words.
As for the substance, Trump’s denial of Russia’s involvement is bizarre, inappropriate, and frustrating. Nonetheless, one cannot say it is without strategy. Remember that Trump has a core following of people who will believe him over what the ‘mainstream media’ or anyone else says. He was probably aware of the aforementioned spin, so he chose to not even give them an inch in order to maintain a face of legitimacy for his core support.
Now, Trump will have to gain the respect and trust of the intelligence community. Obviously they are subject to constant criticism, but this blatant and silly refusal to accept their conclusions sends mixed signals about the credibility of U.S. intelligence to the international community.
The other questions we need to ask is: How should Russia pay? These are especially complicated questions. One thing is clear: Russia-U.S. relations will drastically change under a Trump administration. Nonetheless, our national sovereignty needs to be a constant guiding principle, and Russia violated our national sovereignty by committing cyber-attacks.
Republicans should hold Trump accountable to defend the United States from such attacks. If he does not do so, he would be failing to uphold his constitutional responsibility. Already, Republican senators Sens. Lindsey Graham (SC), Tom Cotton (AK), and James Lankford (OK) are on the record contradicting Trump’s claims. Some have been more vocal about the matter than others, which is a start.
But I want to press on this point further for any readers out there. In a previous post, John McDonough urged Trump supporters to draw a line on Trump’s behavior now that the election is over and Clinton is out of the picture. I want to give an example of how this can be done. Trump supporters should ask themselves the following question: “Under what circumstances will I support his impeachment?”
I don’t want to be an alarmist, and I don’t think it will come to that. But if Trump’s disparagement of the intelligence community were to translate into hostility and a failure to heed their warnings and advice, Republicans in the Senate should put the country’s interests over party and not hesitate to throw around the “I” word. The people should, if such a case were to arise, stand with them.