Putin Wins Big
It is certain that Russia launched a massive hacking campaign to undermine the U.S. electoral process in 2016. That is a major issue that needs to be thoroughly investigated, and steps taken so that it does not recur.
Though the Russian involvement in the 2016 election targeted both presidential candidates at various times, it likely damaged Hillary Clinton's campaign more. Confirmation in the emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee that the DNC had actively favored Clinton over her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders, infuriated Sanders supporters. Conceivably enough of those supporters could have decided not to vote for Clinton based on those emails to have made a difference in the three crucial battleground states – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Thus far, however, the primary focus on the Russian hacking has been with respect to the far-fetched claim that the Russians colluded with the Trump campaign fashion in some fashion The obsessive focus on that issue has turned the hacking into a major victory for Vladimir Putin by introducing an unparalleled degree of rancor and paralysis into the American political system.
James Kirchik writing in the May 3 American Interest ("Who Killed the Liberal World Order"), describes how at last September's G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China, then President Obama confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin about the Russian hacking of the DNC, and told him to "cut it out" or "face serious consequences." In October, according to Bloomberg News, the White House used a cyber version of the "red phone" to convey to the Kremlin detailed evidence of Russian hacking of voter data banks in numerous states. On both occasions, Putin, who had long since taken Obama's measure, did nothing in response.
WHATEVER THE REASON Putin decided to interfere with the 2016 election, it was not because he feared Obama or Obama's legacy-bearer, former Secretary of State Clinton. Starting with Clinton's declared "reset" of relations with Russia, shortly after the Obama administration entered office in 2009, until Obama issued his warning at Hangzhou, the United States had repeatedly stood down in every possible confrontation with Russia.
The 2009 reset itself took place in the wake of the assassinations by Russian intelligence agents of Alexander Livinenko in London, where the former Russian intelligence operative he had been granted political asylum, and of Russia's leading investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Russia was also busy hardening control of areas of Georgia occupied by Russian troops. As part of the reset, the Obama administration abandoned plans to provide Poland and Czechoslovakia with anti-missile defenses.
During the 2012 presidential debates, Obama mocked his Republican opponent Mitt Romney for listing Russia as the United States' primary international foe. "The 80s called. They want their foreign policy back," teased Obama. And even prior to the 2012 campaign, Obama told Putin's sidekick Dmitry Medvedev that he'd be able to be "more flexible" after the campaign, and asked for a little breathing room from Russia.
All Obama's shows of good will, however, went unreciprocated by Putin. In 2013, Putin granted asylum to Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who had exposed the U.S. National Security Agency's surveillance methods. The same year Putin cracked down on foreign-funded NGO's, and invaded the Ukraine. Obama refused to supply the Ukrainians with defensive weapons, as the United States had committed to do in the Budapest Memorandum, drafted when the former Soviet republics gave up their nuclear stockpiles.
In 2015, Soviet forces entered Syria in force to shore up the Assad regime, fairly daring the United States to challenge them. Previously, Putin had humiliated Obama by offering him a lifeline, when the latter refused to enforce his own redline against Assad's deployment of chemical weapons.
PUTIN HAD reasons to prefer Trump to Clinton. He harbors a paranoid belief that Hillary orchestrated protests against him in 2011. And, writes Kirchik in the Los Angeles Times, he appreciated that Trump's ignorant outbursts made "American politics – and by extension America – look like a foolish country."
Putin may also have thought that Trump's neo-Jacksonian, quasi-isolationist campaign talk would serve Russia's interest in carving out a sphere of interest in its near abroad. But, as Kirchik notes in his American Interest piece, Obama's "interconnected world," without American power to back it up, had already resulted in a reduction of American influence and allowed Putin free rein in Russia's near abroad.
The Russians were as shocked as everyone else, however, by Trump's victory. Their goal was not so much to defeat Clinton, as to render it difficult for her (or Trump) to govern and to thereby "weaken the world's last superpower," writes Professor Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Relations Prague in Tablet. And their means for doing so was to reduce America's democratic legitimacy by calling the election results into question and reducing the scope for compromise and consensus in the American political system.
Or as veteran Moscow correspondent David Satter argued in the June 12 Wall Street Journal, Putin did not so much support Donald Trump, as he sought American political paralysis. The differences between Trump and Clinton were simply not that significant in his view.
Putin's method is to sow chaos, to light a hundred brushfires and see which ones turn into full-fledged forest fires. "Putin is not a chess player," writes Galeotti. "He and his people are improvisers and opportunists. They try to create multiple potential points of leverage, never knowing which will prove useful or not."
One of those prongs was the so-called "Trump dossier, compiled by former British intelligence official Christopher Steele based on information "sold" to him by Russian intelligence officials. The document bears all the marks of a classic Russian disinformation campaign. "The kind of gossip that fills the Trump Dossier, writes Galeotti, is common currency in Moscow, "even if very little of it has any authority behind it aside from the speaker's own imagination."
One thing is almost certain: The Trump campaign did not collude with the Russians. Both Senator Diane Feinstein and Congressman Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees investigating Russia's electoral involvement, respectively, have confirmed that they have seen nothing to implicate Trump or his aides in collusion with Russia.
The absence of collusion is, moreover, logically demonstrable. If there were collusion, the Russians would undoubtedly possess evidence of it. Since coming to office, the Trump administration has taken a much more aggressive anti-Russian stance than Obama ever did – targeting with cruise missiles an airfield and planes of Russian ally Bashir Assad and just this week shooting down a Syrian plane in a dogfight; allowing Montenegro's entry into the NATO alliance; denying Exxon-Mobil a waiver for energy exploration in Russia; and sharply criticizing Russian support for the Taliban in Afghanistan. If Putin possessed incriminating evidence on Trump, he would have already revealed it in order to destroy President Trump. Elementary, my dear Watson.
DESPITE THE LACK OF ANY PLAUSIBLE EVIDENCE OF COLLUSION, Russian interference in the 2016 election has set in motion motion a "self-sustaining process," in Galeotti's words, in which "America is tearing itself apart with little need for Russian help."
It is hard to know for sure whether those most actively promoting the Trump-Russian collusion narrative really believe it themselves or just see it as the best way of bringing down the president. About the latter they might be right. Already the anti-Trump forces have succeeded in gaining the appointment of a special prosecutor, and the scope of the special prosecutor's investigation has expanded to legally flimsy charges of obstruction of justice against Trump. Once a special prosecutor is in the saddle there is no way of knowing where things will go. The longer the investigation continues the greater the chance of a prosecution for something entirely tangential to the original investigation.
Patrick Fitzgerald, for instance, was appointed special prosecutor to investigate the outing of CIA employee Valerie Flame. From the very outset of the investigation, he knew the source of that information; Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage was the one who told it to columnist Robert Novak. Armitage, however, was never prosecuted. But Fitzgerald carried on for years, until he claimed the scalp of Vice-President Richard Cheney's top aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, on perjury charges, over statements given to investigators about which there were conflicting memories.
Putin has succeeded in driving a wedge between President and the intelligence agencies upon which he must rely for crucial decisions. Every week, a new leak emerges from some anonymous intelligence official – leaks which, if true, would subject the leaker to up to ten years in prison. Yet the source of these leaks has received little attention from the FBI or other investigative bodies.
Lee Smith bemoans in Tablet that the president's very real flaws, which are "plain to every sentient being on the planet," have been supplanted as a topic of discussion by a "toxic fabulism typical of Third World and Muslim societies." "A vulgar conspiratorial mind-set [has become] the norm among the country's educated elite . . . and is being legitimized daily by a truth-telling bureaucrats who make evidence-free and even deliberately false accusations behind a cloak of anonymity."
Smith makes an insightful distinction between "consolations, vicious self-sung lullabies" and "conspiracy theories." Examples of the former would be: Hillary lost because the Russians hacked the election; our children died because the Jews poisoned the wells.
But such "consolations," as vicious as they may be, only become full-blown conspiracy theories when weaponized through the mass media for political use. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion would be the classic example of such a conspiracy theory. And, Smith points out, Hillary Clinton's "deplorables" do not have the platforms "to proliferate weaponized narratives capable of doing real damage to our polity – the elites do." And those elites -- the press, the intelligence community, political parties – have been used to legitimize a conspiracy theory.
James Kirchik, another anti-Trump pundit (as well as a brilliant analyst on many issues) laments the way the "confirmation bias" has resulted in well-meaning, liberal anti-Trump journalists reporting stories that they want to be true and are emotionally true for them – e.g., stories of threatened or actual violence against minorities – but are factually false.
He points to the non-stop anti-Trump vitriol from the Twitter feed of the New York Times assistant Washington D.C. editor, Jonathan Weissmann – anti-Trump vitriol that matches his own – as an example of the mainstream press having lost any claim to the public's trust about the news stories it publishes.
In the short-run the beneficiary of the mainstream media's reporting of baseless stories, such as that the Russians successfully hacked voting machines in key states, is Donald Trump. By refuting the wilder accusations, he can evade the more substantive ones and, at the same time, stoke the anger that brought him to the presidency in the first place.
But in the long-run, the current state of political toxicity, manifested last week in an assassination attempt against GOP congressman, and the loss of credibility of our major media organizations weakens America and its place in the world. And the big winner from that is Vladimir Putin.