More than a month after the election, the surreal circus of the 2016 campaign shows no sign of ending.
Charges that Kremlin-directed hackers meddled in the election to aid Donald Trump, which first surfaced several months ago, now appear to have been validated by the CIA. The claim, leaked by anonymous officials to the media after a briefing for senators, has re-energized Trump foes and has been brushed aside as rumor-mongering by the president-elect and his supporters. A full and bipartisan congressional investigation is essential, but at best, it can only contain the real damage, the causes of which lie deep in our political culture.
While the problem of Russian interference is serious, it’s important to avoid hyperbole — such as “Russia hacked our election,” which implies that Kremlin agents tampered with the actual vote count. There is no evidence whatsoever of such tampering. The hacking refers to internal emails from the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign, stolen — apparently by Russians — and handed over to WikiLeaks for public disclosure.
Did the leaks cost Clinton the election? Doubtful; the 11th-hour FBI announcement of a renewed probe into her private email server was far more damaging. However, the WikiLeaks revelations, which showed that the Democratic Party establishment strongly favored Clinton over left-wing insurgent Sen. Bernie Sanders, boosted many of his supporters’ beliefs that the primaries were rigged — possibly persuading some people to either vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein or stay home.
Given the narrow margin of Trump’s win in some key states, the WikiLeaks effect cannot be ruled out. But the outcome of the vote was shaped by many factors. Rhetoric about a Kremlin-stolen election is irresponsible, to say the least.
Yet “irresponsible” is too mild a word for the rhetoric of Trump and some of his staff who impugn the intelligence community. John Bolton, named as a likely pick for deputy secretary of state, suggested on Fox News that the Russian trail might be a “false flag” — a claim that seemed to implicate the Obama administration, especially combined with Bolton’s assertion that intelligence had been “politicized” under Obama. Bolton’s later comments seemed to point toward a third party. But former Trump adviser Carter Page, on a trip to Moscow, is reported to have suggested that the Obama administration orchestrated the cyberattacks to frame Russia.
There is no reason to believe that Trump is a Kremlin “puppet.” But there is plenty of evidence that Vladimir Putin favored a Trump victory. Trump’s “America First” message is similar to that of the nationalist parties the Kremlin has been cultivating in Europe. While Trump has made contradictory statements on foreign policy, the Russian establishment expects him to downplay the idea of the West as an alliance bound by universal values of freedom and human rights. Putin may see a Trump presidency as a chance to gain international respectability without abiding by democratic standards — and possibly facilitate Russian expansionism on former Soviet territory.
Does this mean that Putin tried to steer the election to Trump? An investigation may or may not answer that question. For now, conservatives and liberals seem to have traded places when it comes to a hawkish stance on Russia, even as they trade mutual (and correct) accusations of hypocrisy. Whatever the outcome, the reports of Russian interference will solidify the perception among Democrats that Trump is an illegitimate president.
Foreign meddling in our election is a very grave charge. But so far, this scandal also illustrates the adage that we have met the enemy, and he is us.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.