Is Russia meddling with the U.S. election?
The possibility of Vladimir Putin directly and significantly influencing the 2016 presidential election is no longer the stuff of pulp thrillers. It is looking more and more plausible. And if it's true, it should give everyone pause.
Even as the Democratic National Convention convenes to coronate Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party is clambering to stem the damage caused by a massive hack that leaked nearly 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee. This attack follows hot on the heels of the so-called Guccifer 2.0 leak in June, which uncovered the DNC's opposition file on Donald Trump, as well as some donor data.
Evidence is building that both leaks are part of a Russian intelligence operation.
There were already some clues that suggest "Guccifer 2.0," the hacker (or hackers) behind the June attack, had links to Russia. Now, The New York Times reports that "researchers have concluded that the national committee was breached by two Russian intelligence agencies, which were the same attackers behind previous Russian cyberoperations at the White House, the State Department, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff last year. And metadata from the released emails suggests that the documents passed through Russian computers."
Could anyone else have the motive or the resources to commit such a hack and frame it as Russian? Israel, perhaps? Hillary Clinton is a lot better for Israel than the anti-Semite-pandering Trump. Iran? Trump's U.S. retrenchment from the Middle East would be good for Iran, but Trump has said many times that he would tear up the Iran deal, which Clinton supports, so that option looks like a wash. China? They wouldn't mind a Trump presidency, and it certainly wouldn't be their first cyberattack against U.S. interests, but somehow an email dump doesn't seem like their style. Rogue Republicans? Anonymous-style hackers doing it all for the lulz?
My money is on Russia. After all, organizing disinformation campaigns in the West through state-backed hackers is a Russian specialty.
All of this brings us to the possibility of a link between the Kremlin and Trump's campaign.
It's obvious why Putin would want to hurt Clinton and favor Trump: Clinton's hawkish instincts would frustrate Russia, while Trump's foreign policy sensibility looks tailor-made for Russian interests. A lot has already been written about the ideological and temperamental alignment between Trump and Putin — mainly that they're both authoritarian, macho strongmen. Trump wants to retrench America from the U.S.'s "world policeman" role which so frustrates Russia, and particularly from alliances like NATO, which Russia views as an encroachment on its sphere of influence.
The history of financial links between Trump and Russia, in particular, oligarchs and institutions close to the Kremlin, has gone appallingly underreported this election cycle. Trump's debt has grown dramatically over the years, even as Trump is blackballed by U.S. banks due to his history of bankruptcy.
The kinds of hyper-luxury developments that are a Trump specialty very often cater to oligarchs from unequal and unstable countries, with Russia prominent among them. "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets," Trump's son, Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008, the Washington Post reported. The Trump Soho development in Manhattan was perennially short of funds, and perennially rescued by cash investments from Russia and Kazakhstan, including a firm "in favor with" Putin, The New York Times reported.
As Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall points out, Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign chairman, has a history of working as a flack and fixer for Viktor Yanukovych, the Putin ally and former Ukrainian president whose ouster led to the crisis in Ukraine. Trump's Russia adviser Carter Page has deep ties to Russian business, including Gazprom, the state-owned oil giant.
Meanwhile, Russia's state-owned media openly backs Trump, as Politico points out. And the Kremlin has an army of online trolls who engage in pro-Russian propaganda — many of whom now seem to have morphed into pro-Trump trolls, writes The New Yorker's Adrian Chen. And one of the most significant changes to the recently Trumpified GOP platform was the gutting of its anti-Russia plank, which, as the Washington Post notes, Trump staffers specifically and assiduously fought for.
While Trump dismisses as a "joke" allegations that Russians hacked the DNC to help him, it now seems that among the hackers' targets was a DNC opposition researcher tasked with digging up dirt on Trump's campaign manager. The plot thickens.
While from a U.S. perspective this looks like unprovoked meddling in American internal affairs and democracy, from Putin's perspective it must look like tit-for-tat. The U.S. government has funded pro-democracy groups in Russia and Ukraine for a while now. While the Western mindset may view encouraging democracy and playing kingmakers as categorically different endeavors, from the standpoint of realpolitik and real world outcomes, you can hardly blame the Kremlin for viewing it as a matter of "potato, pot-ah-to."
So, if all of this is true, and indeed Russia is interfering with the U.S. presidential election, what's to be done?
First, the U.S. government should respond rather than ignore. Because the field of cyberwar is so new and murky, we haven't completely figured out the "rules of engagement." For example, it's hard to know how to react to various antagonizing transgressions by opponents in a way that deters them without needlessly provoking them. But if anything should be used as an example of What Not To Do Or There Will Be Consequences, certainly this is it. The U.S. probably still has the world's best cyberwarfare capabilities.
Second, our media should exercise some responsibility, and no longer mention the WikiLeaks hack without also mentioning the possible Russian ties. By making the story of the DNC leaks about the contents of the leaks, rather than about a Kremlin plot to undermine U.S. interests, the media played right into Putin's hands (as evidenced by DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigning in disgrace). This isn't about media "defending" American interests, it's about getting the story right and not being played by flacks.
As a conservative, I don't shed any tears over damage to the Democratic Party, but this is bigger than politics. As much as I oppose Hillary Clinton and all her pomp and works, if the fact that Putin wants to hurt Clinton redounds to her political benefit, that's fine with me. It should, because it's the truth.
And now, as in the Cold War, the truth is the best counter to Kremlin propaganda.