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Putin, Assange, and Comey are doing Donald Trump’s work for him

Photo illustration: Javier Zarracina/Vox, Photos: Getty Images

In these final frenzied days before Election Day, Hillary Clinton finds herself in an unexpected and uncomfortable place: forced to campaign against not just Donald Trump, but also against WikiLeaks, the Russian government, and even the director of the FBI.

It’s hard to overstate how unprecedented — and troubling — a moment we’re living through. In the aftermath of a leaked recording of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, Clinton opened up an 11-point lead in some polls and seemed to be cruising toward a potential landslide win. Leading Republicans, effectively conceding the presidential race, began shifting resources to key House and Senate races.

Now, just six days out, Clinton finds herself in an entirely different place. She’s still ahead in national polls — my colleague Andrew Prokop pegs her advantage as somewhere between 2 and 6 points — and in battleground states like Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Trump, though, has been narrowing the gap thanks to a surprising set of allies: Assange’s WikiLeaks, which has been releasing internal Clinton campaign emails stolen by Russian hackers loyal to Putin, and FBI Chief James Comey, who ignited a political firestorm last week by abruptly announcing that his agency was again looking into Clinton’s use of a private email server.

Comey has since come under sustained criticism from law enforcement veterans and lawmakers from both parties who believe he has broken with longstanding Justice Department policies by directly intruding into the presidential race.

“There isn't just a unique set of circumstances, where there isn't just a direct confrontation between the two candidates,” says Steven Aftergood, head of the Federation of American Scientists' government secrecy program. “There are also actions being taken on an international level, there is an information operations campaign being waged through unauthorized disclosures, and there is this battle of perceptions over the ongoing law enforcement investigation.”

The upshot is that the last phase of the campaign is being shaped by outside forces stretching from Moscow to the FBI’s headquarters in downtown Washington — not by the strength or weakness of the two candidates’ policy ideas.

The next president will inherit an array of difficult questions, and right now Clinton could be debating Trump on issues like climate change, the future of Obamacare, defeating ISIS, and protecting the US from an increasingly diffuse terrorist threat. Instead, she finds herself squaring off with Russia, WikiLeaks, and the FBI.

That’s a vivid illustration of how much influence Putin, Assange, and Comey have over the outcome of the 2016 campaign. The question is whether they’ll cost Clinton the White House — and whether they’ll do lasting damage to American democracy along the way.

The cabal working to impact the election isn’t the one Trump says

Earlier this week, the official Twitter account of WikiLeaks proudly announced the group’s next project: a 160-page book with the creative title of “Hillary Clinton: the Goldman Sachs Speeches.”

The group had obtained and posted transcripts of Clinton’s comments in October, and boasted in publicity materials that the book will be a “highly-readable exposé of HRC’s in-private interactions with the global financial elite [that] will be vital reading for anyone interested in the way power and money intertwine at the very top of American politics.”

The new book will have an introduction by the group’s fugitive leader, Julian Assange, who has made no secret of his disdain for Clinton (because of her hawkish foreign policy views), and annotations from Doug Henwood, author of an anti-Clinton polemic called “My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency.” To give you a sense of Henwood’s views about Clinton’s character and integrity, the cover shows her aiming a handgun at the reader.

Donald Trump has spent weeks warning that a global cabal is secretly working to rig the upcoming election. The GOP nominee is right that outside forces are trying to influence next week’s vote, but the new WikiLeaks book is a vivid reminder that he’s wrong about who they are, and about who they’re trying to help.

It’s not, to use Trump’s own words, “international banks” meeting covertly to elect Clinton and “plot the destruction of US sovereignty.” Instead, it’s a self-described pro-transparency organization taking information that American intelligence services believe to have been stolen by Russian hackers and then dribbling it out daily to ensure maximum media coverage — and maximum political impact.

That organization is WikiLeaks, which made its name releasing controversial US diplomatic cables and military records. It is now best known for publishing reams of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and the account of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta and releasing them online.

The purloined documents, which have been sparked hundreds of articles in leading newspapers and websites and breathless coverage on cable networks like CNN, don’t show Clinton or her aides breaking any laws.

They’ve shaken up the race all the same. One batch, released just before the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, embarrassed Clinton by showing DNC officials plotting to undermine Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, revelations that ultimately forced DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign.

The bigger damage has come from the organization’s canny move to release more of the stolen Podesta emails every day, triggering a new round of coverage each time. Some of the emails revealed excerpts from Clinton’s closed-door speeches to big banks, a subject of major controversy in the Democratic primary. In one of those excerpts, which Donald Trump seized on almost immediately, Clinton talked about needing “both a public and a private position” on key policy issues.

As my colleague Zack Beauchamp has written, there is very strong evidence that the emails were stolen by Russian hackers and given to WikiLeaks, which promptly published them online. Media outlets that would never knowingly publish documents stolen by a hostile Russian power have had no compunction publishing documents stolen by a hostile Western power and then laundered through WikiLeaks.

The upshot? Russia has managed to weaponize the American press — and use it as a potent weapon against Hillary Clinton.

Putin and Assange have at least made little secret of their hatred of Clinton and their preference for Trump. Clinton’s newest political adversary almost certainly has very different motivations. But FBI Chief James Comey may wind up doing the most damage all the same.

Clinton’s path to the White House runs through FBI headquarters

Largely lost in the storm kicked up by Comey’s bombshell announcement about the FBI renewing its probe into Clinton’s email server is that previous investigations have failed to find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The FBI has also acknowledged that it has barely begun examining the trove of emails found on the laptop of Anthony Weiner and suspect that most, of not all, are either unrelated to Clinton or duplicates of emails they've already seen.

None of that changes the fact that the Comey announcement has given fresh ammunition to Trump — who has said that Clinton’s email server controversy is “bigger than Watergate” — and is dominating news coverage during the final push toward Election Day.

It also doesn’t change the growing attacks on Comey from both Democrats and Republicans concerned that the FBI chief has improperly inserted himself, and the agency he leads, into the pre-election fray. The Justice Department’s senior leadership reportedly opposed Comey’s decision to notify Congress about the bureau’s renewed investigation because of its potential impact on the election. And three former attorneys general — Democrat Eric Holder and Republicans Alberto Gonzales and Michael Mukasey — have accused the FBI chief of making a serious error in judgement.

Many Clinton defenders are also incredulous that Comey took the step after having earlier argued against publicly accusing Russia of being behind the DNC hacks to avoid influencing the race by bolstering Clinton’s contention that Moscow was actively trying to help Trump win the presidency. In a conference call with reporters Monday, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said Comey’s reluctance to name Russia was “a blatant double standard.”

“That Director Comey would show more discretion in a matter concerning a foreign state actor than one involving the Democratic nominee for president is nothing short of jaw-dropping,” Mook said.

President Barack Obama waded into the controversy for the first time this week, using an interview with Now This News filmed Tuesday to defend Clinton and subtly criticize Comey and the FBI.

‘‘I do think that there is a norm that when there are investigations — we don't operate on innuendo, and we don't operate on incomplete information, and we don't operate on leaks,” Obama said. ‘‘We operate based on concrete decisions that are made. When this was investigated thoroughly last time, the conclusion of the FBI, the conclusion of the Justice Department, the conclusion of repeated congressional investigations, was she had made some mistakes but that there wasn't anything there that was prosecutable.”

The Clinton campaign declined to comment for this story.

The actual impact of Comey’s statement is hard to measure: A senior Democratic Congressional aide said in a recent interview that he feared the news could depress voter turnout and cost Democrats one or more of the four seats the party needs to retake the Senate. At the same time, a poll taken in Wisconsin after the Comey news broke found that voter concern about the email scandal basically disappeared after a day.

Either way, Clinton and her aides find themselves in the awkward position of having to attack a man that they’d lavishly praised in July after Comey said he wouldn’t recommend criminal charges in the email server case. It’s a hard pivot to make, and a sign of just how extraordinary an election we’re living through.

“The FBI is a bad place because whether by design or not it’s interfering in the presidential campaign,” Aftergood says. “People are arguing about Comey’s motivations, but speculation aside, the reality is that the FBI’s actions in the final weeks of the election have taken center stage, and that’s not where they should be.”

That’s where they are, however. And even if Clinton pulls out a win, Russia has still learned how to weaponize the American press, a tactic it is likely to use again. And the FBI has seen just how much influence it can have over the US political system with few if any real repercussions.

The election will blessedly come to an end in less than a week. The damage Comey, Putin, and Assange have wrought, whatever their motivation, seem likely to endure far longer.