What We Know and Don’t Know About Russia, Trump and the 2016 Election
Less than 100 days into the new administration, the dominant story has been his campaign’s involvement with Russia pre and post election. David French gives us understanding as to what we have evidence of happening and what we don’t.
The Russians hacked a few computers, but they did not “hack” the election. There is no evidence that Russians actually meddled with the mechanical election process itself meaning ballots and voting machines.
What Russia Did
They sowed confusion and chaos, and there’s strong evidence (according to multiple intelligence agencies) that they ultimately sought to help Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton. Their most infamous move was the theft of e-mails from the Democratic National Committee, which were likely passed to WikiLeaks before becoming the basis of a slow drip of damaging information about Clinton and the Democratic party released into the news cycle.
At the same time, Russia was allegedly using “trolls” and “bots” to impact the news cycle by creating artificial “surges” of commentary online. They also used propaganda outlets such as RT to try to affect the national debate, and intentionally tried to plant certain ideas and themes into the American electorate’s consciousness, including the notion that the election was “rigged” against Trump (a theme Trump himself picked up).
Russia and Trump’s Election
More than 130 million Americans voted in the 2016 election, but the outcome turned on around 80,000 votes in three key states. Any number of factors could have been decisive. Russia certainly put its thumb on the scales for Trump, but in an election where any number of factors could have influenced the outcome, we’ll never know if Russia put Trump over the top.
Russia and Trump’s Campaign
Trump hired Paul Manafort as campaign chair and was receiving campaign advice from Carter Page. Manafort and Page in particular had longstanding business ties to Vladimir Putin’s allies. Manafort had allegedly received millions of dollars in payments from Putin allies in Ukraine and had in the past actively worked to advance Putin’s interests. General Michael Flynn, a prominent campaign surrogate who later became Trump’s first national-security adviser, also had business ties to Russian firms and to RT, the Kremlin-owned propaganda network. And Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone, who remained an informal adviser to the campaign even after leaving a formal role during the primaries, had still-unclear relationships with the Russians as well. The candidate’s reliance on these men during the campaign, combined with his odd and persistent praise for Putin, raised serious concerns of pro-Russia bias and improper Russian ties.
At the same time that the media was investigating Manafort’s ties to Putin allies, rumors were rocketing around Washington that Trump officials were working closely with Russian intelligence and that Trump himself had been “compromised” by the Russian government. In other words, people were claiming that the Russian government possessed information about Trump that Trump would not want made public, and thus that the Kremlin could exert undue influence on his presidency. These rumors grew so prevalent that intelligence officials reportedly briefed both Obama and Trump about them.
It turns out that many (if not most) of those rumors were based on a “dossier” compiled by a former British intelligence officer that contained numerous spectacular, lurid (and completely unverified) claims about Trump and Trump’s associates. Multiple news organizations had labored for weeks and months to attempt to verify its assertions and had been unable to substantiate any material allegation. Nevertheless, BuzzFeed chose to release the entire, unverified document into the public square after the election, a decision that has tainted the debate ever since.
The Trump administration has been caught in lie after lie about its contacts with Russia. Trump and his allies have repeatedly said that no one from his campaign team was in contact with Russian officials during the campaign; anonymous intelligence officials have claimed otherwise, and they supposedly have “intercepts” that prove it. Moreover, Trump administration officials have also misled the public about their contacts with Russians after the election but before Trump took office.
To be more specific, General Flynn apparently lied to Vice President Pence about his contacts with Russia, and it cost him his job. Attorney General Jeff Sessions misled the Senate about his contacts with Russia, and it caused him to recuse himself from the FBI’s Russia investigation. For those keeping score, then, contacts with Russia have cost Trump a campaign chair (Manafort), a foreign-policy adviser (Page), and a national security adviser (Flynn), while also sidelining the attorney general from the FBI’s investigation. This doesn’t even include Jared Kushner’s contacts with a Russian bank under U.S. sanctions. Put all that — really only a partial summary of the Trump team’s Russian contacts — together and you can see why the FBI is currently investigating not just Russian efforts to influence the presidential election but also contacts between Trump’s team and Russian officials.
The Deep State
The “deep state” refers to a supposed cabal of hostile, progressive career government employees who are deeply embedded in the intelligence and national-security establishments and eager to disregard the law if it means hurting the White House. There has certainly been a flood of anonymous and almost certainly illegal leaks that has damaged Trump.
It also appears that there are a number of government officials who are eager to talk to the press and leak confidential or classified communications. Each time the Trump administration or its allies make a controversial contention, these sources quickly talk to reporters, and within hours (sometimes minutes) tweets and news reports materialize to contradict or contest the administration’s claims.
So far, what we know is that the Trump team has trouble telling the truth. We also know that intelligence officials can’t or won’t keep secrets that they’re bound by law to keep. The leaking is working to undermine confidence in the Trump administration.
Wiretaps, Surveillance, Unmasking
Earlier this month, Trump tweeted a claim that Obama had essentially wiretapped Trump Tower — that the outgoing administration had placed the incoming administration under direct and unlawful surveillance. At this point, there’s no evidence that what Trump said was true. The FBI has denied it — Director James Comey pointed out that president Obama didn’t have the power to order a wiretap — the Obama administration has denied it, and not even partisan Republican members of the House and Senate intelligence committees claim it’s true.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean there was no government surveillance of the Trump administration. Instead, what basically everyone acknowledges is that the American intelligence community monitors foreign powers, and if Americans communicate with certain foreign officials, then those communications are recorded or logged or monitored solely as a matter of course. This is sometimes referred to as “incidental collection.” Normally, the identities of the Americans whose communications were intercepted are concealed to protect their privacy and prevent inadvertent and unjustified suspicion from being cast upon innocent activities. Intelligence officials, however, have a degree of discretion to “unmask” or identify those Americans within the intelligence agency, though not necessarily publicly, if there is concern that they were engaged in improper or illegal activity.
Intelligence, Trump and the Government
In early March, the New York Times reported that outgoing Obama administration officials had scattered information about Russian interference in the election throughout the government, so that the incoming Trump administration would have trouble squashing the investigation. Later reports indicated that Obama officials even went so far as to provide the numbers of specific documents to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee so that those documents wouldn’t be destroyed.
These officials seemed to be disseminating information about Russian actions and followed all the laws protecting classified information. There was nothing inherently wrong with there efforts to preserve evidence — especially given the understandable belief that the Trump administration would be less than diligent in pursuing the investigation. If that evidence includes documents or intercepts indicating collusion or cooperation with Russian actions on the part of Trump-campaign officials, then the action becomes even more understandable and justifiable.
Devin Nunes was on Trump’s transition team, but is currently not a Trump-administration official. He’s the Chairman of a House committee that is supposed to provide oversight of the Trump administration. Given that reality, the following chain of events is deeply problematic:
Earlier this month, Nunes was called to the White House grounds (anonymous leaks indicate that his meeting there was in some way facilitated by senior Trump-administration lawyers and national-security aides) to view documents that indicated that Trump administration officials may have been wrongly unmasked in reports of communications with foreign officials. (In other words, these officials were caught up in “incidental collection,” and their identity was wrongly exposed in a manner that Nunes found troubling.)
It was certainly unusual for Nunes to go alone to the White House to view this information, and what followed was even more so: He held a press conference on White House grounds and claimed to have “briefed” the White House on information he apparently got from the White House. At the same time, he refused to share the information with other members of his committee or to identify his source(s). Compounding the problem, when the press discovered his first, secret White House meeting, he appeared to mislead reporters, creating the impression that White House aides knew nothing about it.
In the final analysis, Nunes acted more like a Trump aide or lawyer than like the chair of a House committee. It looks as if the Trump administration used him to provide a form of external validation of Trump’s claims of improper surveillance — and that’s not his role.
Michael Flynn and Immunity
On TV or in movies, only guilty people with lots of valuable information seek immunity. In the real world, scared, innocent people sometimes seek immunity just as guilty people do, and the information that emerges on the record as a result is not always useful. We simply don’t know what Flynn knows, and it’s unwise to read too much into his immunity request, which, in any case, was denied by the Senate Intelligence Committee as “wildly preliminary.”
It’s important and troubling to know that members of the intelligence community are seemingly leaking with impunity to damage Trump. It’s important and troubling to know that Trump has lost key aides because of their Russia ties, and that Trump and his team continue struggling to tell the truth about their Russian contacts. And it’s important and troubling to know that huge swaths of the American political establishment are being exposed as purely partisan.
The FBI is continuing its investigation, and so are the House and Senate intelligence committees (though Nunes’ House committee is in a state of chaos). Every major media publication is feverishly chasing the various threads of the story. It’s entirely possible that we’re not at the beginning of the end of this scandal, but rather at the end of the beginning. It’s also entirely possible that the end, when it comes, will leave political casualties on all sides, from bureaucrats who may face prosecution for unlawful leaks to public figures who may face ruin for unlawful or inappropriate foreign contacts.
One thing is clear: The Russian government has run one of the most cost-effective and disruptive espionage operations in history. Through a few simple hacks of the DNC, some basic online trolling, and garden-variety propaganda spread by modern means, the Kremlin has turned a superpower’s politics upside down. Its chief geopolitical rival is divided, with leaders obviously more furious at each other than at the foreign power who created the crisis. Russia may well face a day of reckoning for its attack on our democracy, but for now it has won, and the magnitude of its victory increases with each petty and partisan turn in Washington’s most consequential drama.