It was “an act of war,” an intervention by a foreign power that de-legitimises the election of America’s next president. In the more restrained words of its presumed intended victim, Hillary Clinton, it was “an act against our country, going well beyond normal political concerns”.
Call it what you like. For Democrats and the anti-Trump brigade, Russia’s meddling in the US election – the hacking and public dumping via Wikileaks first of Democratic National Committee documents and then, probably more damagingly, of the emails of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, over the last weeks of the campaign – has become the main reason for her shock defeat on 8 November.
And, on the eve of formal ratification by the electoral college of Trump’s victory, and a month before his inauguration, it increasingly appears as the last, best chance of preventing the nightmare, or at least of derailing the Trump presidency almost before it begins. Unfortunately, the impact may be somewhat less than meets the eye.
Keep the outrage in perspective. America’s record of meddling in foreign elections is second to none. These days, cyberattacks – be they by Russia, China, the US or Israel, whether to steal industrial secrets, to play havoc with an adversary’s nuclear programme, or to tamper with elections – are standard operating procedure.
And the US seems to have dealt with this one in lackadaisical fashion. It was in September 2015 that the FBI first warned the DNC that it might have been hacked by the Russians, according to an investigation by The New York Times this week. But for months it didn’t press the matter – and certainly not with the zeal it devoted to Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
Circumstantial evidence that the Russian intelligence services were behind the hacking is overwhelming – whatever the protestations of innocence, and despite the Kremlin’s demand that Washington either put up or shut up. Whether Vladimir Putin personally directed the operation, and whether the goal was general mischief-making or to help secure Trump’s victory over a rival who as Secretary of State attracted Putin’s ire, may never be definitively established.
But you can’t blame Trump for what happened. For all his “useful idiot” admiration of the Russian leader, and despite his description of the notion of Russian interference as “ridiculous”, he didn’t carry out the hacking, even if he was the beneficiary of it.
And even the Podesta emails released every day by Wikileaks in the closing stages of the campaign were mostly tittle tattle, the snarky comments of aides. Embarrassing certainly, but surely of less impact on the outcome than the letter of FBI director James Comey to Congress 10 days before the election. That letter not only re-opened the email affair, but transformed the atmosphere of the campaign. At least one study has suggested that it caused a late 1 per cent break in Trump’s favour, enough to turn predicted losses in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania into crucial victories.
Now none of this means Trump can brush off the Russian factor in his first weeks and months in office, normally a productive time for any administration. Not least, it will complicate the confirmation of Rex Tillerson, the outgping ExxonMobil chief and Trump’s choice for Secretary of State, whose own friendly relations with Putin are already a matter of controversy.
What is more, his dismissal of Russian involvement has set Trump at odds with the US intelligence agencies on which he will rely, not least in combattng Russia (score another one to the Kremlin). President Obama has promised a government report within the next month, and leading members of Trump’s own Republican party in Congress will take up the issue.
By making nice with the Kremlin, the incoming president has broken with 35 years of Republican orthodoxy dating back to Ronald Reagan. There’s even talk, probably wishful thinking, of another Watergate Committee, a repeat of the bipartisan exercise that laid bare an earlier subversion of American democracy.
And all the while, other questions linger, fuelled not least by Trump’s failure to produce his tax returns. What about his business dealings with Russia? Is the privately owned Trump Organization dangerously in hock to Russian banks? Or is there something else the Kremlin has on Trump?
Barring a genuine bombshell, one’s best guess is that this too will pass. Even a Congressional probe may be lost in the partisan mire on Capitol Hill. Republicans will depict Democrats as sore losers, ready to use all possible means to discredit the 45th president. It’s now up to the US to make sure similar cyberassaults don’t happen in future.
In the end, you’re left wondering less about Russian skullduggery than about the vulnerability of a democracy compared with autocratic, one-party states such as Russia or China. Checks and balances, accountability, a free press and a functioning opposition are not compatible with ruthless and shameless Kremlin-style hardball.
Hit back, they say, and Obama promises to do exactly that – and the US, you can bet your bottom dollar, is the equal of anyone in the hacking business. The problem is, hit back how?
Putin and his accolytes knew the US would leap upon the Wikileaks material, however dodgy its provenance. If roles were reversed, he would have no such problems. In Russia, the media knows what it may and may not publish – and the second category does not include leaked emails showing Putin in a bad light. But suppose, for argument’s sake, the material was published. Could such revelations affect the result of a Russian election? Not likely, with the grip Putin has on proceedings. Or suppose the leaks detailed Putin’s personal corruption and enrichment? His regime would just insist the whole thing was a lie. And in this world of fake news, many would be persuaded.
Of course Washington could go further, attacking and paralysing key Russian infrastructure systems. But as the Kremlin has already shown in Ukraine and Estonia, two can play that game.There are many ways to imagine the early collapse of the Trump presidency. But as matters stand right now, the Russian connection probably isn’t one of them.
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