The Battle Over Russian Hacking Is Over The Legitimacy Of The Trump Presidency
The tempest over whether Russian state hackers were behind the WikiLeaks release of Democratic Party emails is really a battle for the narrative of the 2016 Presidential election. Just as Bush v Gore gave birth to the slogan of an illegitimate Bush presidency, so do the Democrats (and some Republican anti-Trumpists) want “Putin stole the election for his friend Trump” to be the narrative of the Trump Presidency. With the Republicans in control of Congress and the Presidency, the Russian hacking story is the last weapon in the Democrats’ arsenal. They will pursue it with vigor. We need desperately to study Russian hybrid warfare, but not in a narrow political forum.
The Washington Post’s “Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House” cites unnamed sources “briefed on the matter” that “intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.” The Post article cites an unnamed senior U.S. official that the “consensus view” of the intelligence committee is that Russia’s goal was to get Trump elected.
President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team has challenged the credibility of the CIA’s secret assessment: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction…The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.'”
The third player in this drama, Vladimir Putin, has remained consistent in his denials. In an interview carried by his foreign propaganda arm, RT, Putin declared:
“I wouldn’t know anything about it [hacked emails]. You know, there are so many hackers today and they work with such finesse, planting a trail where and when they need. Not even their own trail but masquerade their actions as those of other hackers acting from other territories, nations. It’s difficult to trace, if even possible. Anyway, we certainly don’t do such things on the state level.”
Putin’s press secretary denied Russian interference in the US election: “Russia will never intervene in the internal affairs, much less electoral process of other countries. Moscow scrupulously avoids any actions or words that could be regarded as direct or indirect interference in an electoral process.”
Putin is a known liar. He and his regime lie that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine, that Russia did not cyberattack Ukraine’s electricity grid, and does not hack or plant compromising information accusing regime opponents of child porn. Marie Le Pen’s admission that her party receives campaign funding from Russia belies his claim that Russia does not intervene in foreign elections.
Despite Putin’s lack of credibility, we should pay attention to his words. The world is indeed full of oddball hackers. The Clinton cyber-attacks began with Romanian hacker “Guccifer” hacking emails addressed to Hillary Clinton’s private account in March 2013. Guccifer apparently operated from a Romanian village, not from Moscow. Clinton recklessly continued to use her private account after the hacked emails were published by RT and by me. It was not until the New York Times revealed that Clinton used exclusively a private server almost three years later that the mainstream media started paying attention. If Hillary Clinton had admitted using a private server back in March 2013 and the media had paid attention, there would have been no cyber story left over for the 2016 campaign. Blame should go where it belongs.
We should also pay attention to Putin’s warning that hacking, either by private persons or by states “are difficult to trace.” Any CIA or Congressional investigation will not yield a smoking gun. Russian state hackers would be too clever for that. The end result would be, at best, some kind of consensus report that would leave most ifs-ands-and-buts open to political interpretation. Just as we will never know how, why and by whom Boris Nemtsov was killed, we will not be able to “prove” that the Kremlin did it. Was it a state agency, a contractor, subcontractor, or a freelancer? Putin and his Kremlin thugs always maintain a thread of plausible deniability, and the West is too timid to use laxer standards of proof.
Did Putin and the Kremlin want Trump or Clinton elected? Russian-language publications seemed generally to favor Trump (transliterated as “Tramp”). Early in the campaign, hysterical stories spread that Hillary’s election meant “World war III.” As the election approached and Clinton seemed poised to win, the coverage switched to neutral or even favored Clinton. Russian think-tankers and pundits characterized Clinton as a known quality with little upside for Russia. Trump’s unpredictability and inexperience alarmed Russian analysts. Who feared Trump would gyrate from crisis to crisis that he did not see coming. One dismissed Trump’s praise of Putin as the chatter of a TV talk show host. Another foreign-policy specialist, writing in a favored Kremlin outlet, pointed out that Trump may be more willing to strike a deal with Putin but he also wants to make the US militarily stronger.
Our America-centric pundits often fail to recognize that Putin is more interested in his domestic base than in foreign policy. From the beginning of the email scandal, Putin sought to focus attention on the damaging contents of the emails. “One shouldn’t draw the public attention from the core of the issue by replacing it with secondary details like who did it.” Candidate Clinton understood the significance of “not looking at the contents.” During the campaign, she refused to discuss the emails because of their presumed Russian origins.
For Putin, the WikiLeaks emails were a godsend. He had just completed a parliamentary election that put an end to Russian electoral democracy. Putin was in desperate need for a convincing moral-equivalence story, which WikiLeaks handed to him on a silver platter.
WikiLeaks revealed exploitable flaws in the democracy that the US holds up as an example, to Putin’s great irritation. The disclosures include: US elections are decided by insiders who are doing the bidding of Soros, Goldman Sachs, and the Saudis of this world. The establishment rigs elections against “peoples’” candidates, Like Bernie Sanders. If critics complain about the enrichment of Putin’s inner circle, he only need rehash the antics of the Clinton Foundation. If we complain about his state-run media, Putin need only talk about the cozy relationship between the mainstream media and the Democratic Party.
As Putin followed the drip-drip of disclosures, beginning with emails supplied by the FBI, State Department, and Judicial Watch, he would have concluded that Hillary Clinton would enter office as a severely wounded US President. He may have begun to relish the prospect of Hillary sitting opposite him at the negotiating table.
An article in the Russian language publication, Regnum, entitled “Why Hillary Clinton may turn out to be better for Russia than Trump,” explains how the Kremlin planned to exploit a scandal-prone Clinton as President: First, Hillary as President would destroy the myth of the perfection of US democracy. Second, the wheelings and dealings of the Clinton Foundation would destroy the myth of transparency of the U.S. government. Third, the election of the 69-year-old Clinton would be a blow to the image of America as a youthful, vibrant nation. For Russians, it would bring to mind the era of decrepit Soviet party leaders like Leonid Brezhnev. Fourth, a Clinton presidency would be less likely to spark World War III than a Trump Presidency. We pretty much know Clinton’s foreign policy, but a Trump could come under the spell of fellow Republicans such as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio and pose a real threat of a nuclear holocaust.
President Obama has ordered the intelligence community to prepare a report on hacking by the Russian government of the US election, and a “bi-partisan” group of Senators (two Republicans and two Democrats) have called for a Congressional investigation. We need such a study, but it should be broadened to investigating Putin’s hybrid warfare on the United States and the Western world and what to do about it. If the investigation deteriorates into a partisan battle over WikiLeaks and the 2016 election, it will prove to be a waste of time. Unless, we are prepared for a real study of Putin’s kleptocracy, we should heed Trump’s advice and move on.
Trump has resisted pressure to agree that Russia was behind the hacks and was trying to get him elected. Instead, Trump has stated that “once they hack if you don’t catch them in the act you’re not going to catch them. They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody. It could be somebody sitting in a bed some place. I mean, they have no idea.” Trump’s political instincts are again serving him well. If he were to endorse the leaked intelligence community’s “high level of confidence” not only in the hacking but also in its intent, he would be signing on to the illegitimate President narrative the Democrats are pushing.
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