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Russian hackers, Donald Trump, and the 2016 election, explained

A growing political firestorm about the future of US foreign policy.

Mural Depicts Donald Trump And Vladimir Putin Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Explosive reports over the weekend from the Washington Post and the New York Times indicate that the CIA is now prepared to clearly state what Hillary Clinton’s campaign and her allies have long maintained — that emails stolen from her campaign chair John Podesta and provided to WikiLeaks were hacked in order to help make Donald Trump president of the United States. In a “closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill last week,” intelligence officials told senators that “it was now ‘quite clear’ that electing Trump was Russia’s goal.”

Evidence that Russia was behind the hacks has been mounting for some time, but the question of what exactly the Russian government is trying to accomplish has been the subject of more dispute.

The CIA’s analysis, according to the Times and Post summaries of the CIA’s reasoning, is that the Russians appear to have also hacked computer systems belonging to the Republican Party. But whereas the Democrats’ emails found their way to WikiLeaks, Republican emails stayed under wraps.

If these reports are correct, it would be powerful evidence that the Russians weren’t just trying to sow general chaos — they were specifically trying to make Donald Trump, rather than Hillary Clinton, the next president of the United States.

The FBI, however, appears to disagree with the CIA’s assessment of Russian motives and told lawmakers as much during its briefings. The scope of the FBI/CIA disagreement is incredibly narrow, but the gap has taken on outsize significance in American politics and media due to the partisan implications of the CIA’s assessment and to lingering bitterness over FBI Director James Comey’s role in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign. President-elect Donald Trump, meanwhile, is aggressively attacking the CIA’s findings — and the agency as a whole — even while he continues to largely decline to receive official US government intelligence briefings and seems to be attempting to install a Russia-friendly oil executive with no government experience as secretary of state.

What happened, exactly?

Back on March 19, Podesta received what’s known as a “phishing” email — basically an attempt to trick a person into a clicking on a bogus link and entering their password there. Podesta correctly identified the email as suspicious-looking and tried to consult with his IT staff about the best way to handle it, but the instructions seem to have gotten garbled, and the hackers ended up securing access to his email account.

They didn’t do anything with this access immediately, but starting in early October WikiLeaks began releasing batches of Podesta’s old emails and continued with a steady drip of new emails throughout the fall campaign.

In keeping with WikiLeaks’ recent practices, the document dump was completely random and not focused on any particular revelations of real or alleged wrongdoing. The portentously named “Podesta Emails” included Podesta’s risotto recipe, an announcement from a friend of mine about the birth of his baby daughter, a performance review of my wife at a job she has several years ago, and tons of other private, personal communications with no relationship to Hillary Clinton or the American government.

On October 7, a formal statement from the US Intelligence Community concluded that Russia had been conducting hacking activity designed to interfere in the US presidential election.

“These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process,” the statement read. “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”

The statement was, however, focused on the hack of Democratic National Committee emails that came out earlier in the summer and that led to the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The Clinton campaign, however, maintained that the same conclusion should apply to the hacked Podesta emails and repeatedly accused the Trump campaign of relying on Russian assistance and the media of operating as essentially unwitting dupes of a Russo-Trumpian plot.

These allegations existed as essentially part of the background noise of the campaign until James Comey’s late-October letter telling Congress that Anthony Weiner’s laptop contained emails that might be relevant to the investigation into Clinton’s email server.

Comey’s October surprise threw Democrats into a panic (rightly so, as subsequent events would prove) and prompted efforts to essentially turn Trump’s Russia connections into a counter-surprise. That included loud demands that the FBI update the public on various investigations into Trump’s ties to Russian figures (the FBI said it didn’t find anything), a half-baked Slate story positing the existence of a secret server communicating with a Russian bank, a David Corn article alleging a five-year plan by Russian intelligence to recruit Trump as an operative, and what essentially amounted to a flood of complaints about FBI hypocrisy in handling the Russia story gingerly while going all in on Clinton’s server.

This weekend’s leaks about the dueling CIA/FBI congressional briefings move the ball forward — in particular by clearly placing the Podesta emails alongside the DNC hack — but don’t fundamentally alter the dynamic. What is profoundly different, however, is that Trump has already won the election, which somewhat alters the calculus of Russia hawks in the GOP congressional conference.

Does this mean Russia “hacked the election”?

That's not a technical term, obviously, but headlines like “Russia hacked U.S. presidential election for Trump, says CIA” seem designed to induce confusion.

Russian hacking prowess has led at various times to fears that Russia might hack actual voting machines or vote tallies, thus altering the results. There is no evidence that this happened, the election system is actually quite robust, the results in key swing states are in line with broad national demographic trends, and the Michigan recount turned up no evidence of fraud.

What's more, it's worth saying that the Podesta hack did not demonstrate any particularly impressive technical skills. He appears to have fallen victim to a fairly basic phishing attack. It's alarming to think of history as turning on something as trivial as user error on the part of an important party official, but there's no evidence of election hacking or some kind of team of Russian super–cyber spies.

What the Russians did was steal Podesta’s emails and give them to WikiLeaks.

Did Russian hackers swing the election?

Since we can't rerun the 2016 election in a laboratory introducing many small differences in an experimental setting, it's challenging to know with any certainty what did and did not move votes. What's more, the election was so close in the three crucial swing states that essentially anything could have been the difference maker. It does seem, however, that Clinton was hurt very badly by late-breaking revelations from the FBI that it had uncovered new emails related to the investigation into her private email server — emails that later turned out to be irrelevant or duplicates.

That's an entirely different saga from the question of Podesta's purloined emails. But it relates in two ways.

One, it's clear that many voters — encouraged by sloppy or confused reporting — thought the two email stories were one thing. Thus, the steady drip of reporting on emails that had been stolen from Clinton felt to many like new developments in an investigation into Clinton's server. So being the victim of a crime ended up making her look like the perpetrator of one in a confused media environment.

The Podesta emails also provided the basis for a lot of negative stories about Clinton in left-wing media outlets. That the emails appeared on WikiLeaks, which has historically been understood in the United States as a kind of far-left muckraking operation aimed at exposing abuses by the US national security apparatus, meant that WikiLeaks-based reporting on Clinton played rather differently than a huge document dump on a conservative-branded website would have.

Many of the emails also served to essentially re-inflame various intraparty controversies that had flared up during the primary campaign. We saw the text of the paid speeches Bernie Sanders frequently criticized Clinton for giving, in a post-election environment in which holding Clinton’s feet to the fire would be a top priority.

Both of these factors fairly clearly hurt Clinton, but an intense post-election divide among left-of-center Americans leads to a kind of pseudo-disagreement over whether it makes sense to say she lost “because” of the attacks. The issue, in essence, is that supporters of Sanders’s primary campaign prefer to emphasize accounts of the election that cast Clinton and her team as villains who bungled things (Putin didn’t prevent her from campaigning in Wisconsin, for example), while Clinton’s supporters prefer to emphasize accounts that cast her and her team as heroic victims. This is not, however, really a factual dispute over what happened.

One could charitably describe it as a disagreement over whether you should characterize the “cause” of an important event in terms of the deepest or most superficial causal elements — in which case, I would recommend Laurie Paul’s Causation: A User’s Guide as essential reading on the metaphysics of causation.

Donald Trump went to war with the CIA

The Trump transition team initially responded to the reporting on the CIA’s findings with a terse three-sentence statement:

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.”

While CIA assessment of Iraq’s WMD capacity was indeed erroneous, the CIA did not say that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. As a December 2014 RAND Corporation analysis concluded, the CIA’s assessments “contained several qualifiers that were dropped,” and “as the draft [National Intelligence Estimate] went up the intelligence chain of command, the conclusions were treated increasingly definitively” by George W. Bush’s political appointees.

What’s more, it’s unlikely the people working on Russia and/or cybersecurity issues at the CIA in 2016 are actually the same people who were working on Iraq and/or WMD issues.

Last but by no means least, the election occurred relatively recently and the Electoral College margin was not even remotely close to the biggest in history.

On Twitter, Trump then attempted to cast doubt on the idea that Russians were behind the hacks at all and rather bizarrely asserted that nobody had brought this up during the election. (Trump himself called on Russian hackers to dig up more Clinton emails at one point.)

Also over the weekend, rumors swirled that Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson would be tapped to serve as Trump’s secretary of state. Tillerson is widely regarded as smart, knowledgeable about the world, capable, and friendly to Russia.

Since Election Day, of course, competing factions of left-of-center America have been engaged in an interpretive battle about the election. Sanders supporters are drawn toward accounts of the election that either support the conclusion that the Democratic Party needs to drastically alter its ideology or that, at a minimum, emphasize the idea that Clinton and her team are bad and/or stupid people. Supporters of Clinton, by contrast, are drawn toward accounts of the election that paint her as a profoundly good and heroic figure victimized by dark forces.

Alexey Pushkov, chair of the Russian Duma’s foreign affairs committee, for example, hailed Tillerson as a “sensational” pick and said that Trump “continues to amaze.”

The CIA/FBI dispute is incredibly narrow

Trump’s strident denials that Russia had anything to do with the hacks turn the issue into a partisan fight. And when faced with a partisan fight, the natural instinct of many traditional political reporters is to try to engage in even-handed reporting. In this case, the fact that the FBI disagrees with the CIA’s assessment offers a factual basis for trying to slot the story into a basic partisan frame. On the one hand, Democrats and the CIA say Russia hacked Podesta’s email to try to help Trump win. On the other hand, Trump and the FBI say that’s not the case.

It’s important to understand, however, that the FBI’s dispute with the CIA is actually extremely narrow and does not in any way bolster Trump’s efforts to cast doubt on Russian culpability.

Instead, according to Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous, the disagreement centers on assessment of Russian motives:

“The FBI briefers think in terms of criminal standards — can we prove this in court,” one of the officials said. “The CIA briefers weigh the preponderance of intelligence and then make judgment calls to help policymakers make informed decisions. High confidence for them means ‘we’re pretty damn sure.’ It doesn’t mean they can prove it in court.”

The FBI is not sold on the idea that Russia had a particular aim in its meddling. “There’s no question that [the Russians’] efforts went one way, but it’s not clear that they have a specific goal or mix of related goals,” said one U.S. official.

The disagreement, in other words, is over whether the Russians intervened to help the more pro-Russian candidate in an American election because he was pro-Russian or whether they were just screwing around and happened to have helped Trump as a result. The CIA seems to be making a fairly commonsense inference, albeit a kind of politically explosive one. The FBI, by contrast, is sticking to what’s actually knowable but also to a conclusion that’s easier to live with for Trump supporters who don’t like the idea of their candidate receiving explicit foreign assistance.

Some Republicans are standing up to Trump on Russia

Trump is an unconventional Republican in many ways, but his political standing rests on the solid support of the traditional Republican Party. In turn, on domestic policy he has appointed a Cabinet full of very conventional conservative Republicans who support a conventional conservative agenda of deregulation, tax cuts, and reducing spending on health care, education, and social assistance.

In exchange, he has received fairly lockstep support from congressional Republicans on crucial issues like the massive financial conflicts of interest in which he’s currently enmeshed. GOP majorities are currently blocking any legislation to curb Trump’s conflicts of interest or any investigations into possible corruption.

So far, the GOP congressional leadership has taken the same view of Russia’s intervention in the election. In a statement, Speaker Paul Ryan called foreign intervention in American elections “unacceptable” but refused to discuss intelligence briefings or call for any kind of hearing or investigation.

But a Russia-friendly foreign policy is a bridge too far for some Republican Party senators. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, two of the senate’s leading hawks, joined up with Democrats Chuck Schumer and Jack Reed to urge an investigation that will “examine these recent incidents thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyber-attacks.” They’ve been joined by several other hawkish senate Republicans and, to an extent, now by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has to follow his caucus’s lead.

Marco Rubio, meanwhile, tweeted what appeared to be a shot at Tillerson.

Part of the subtext here is that congressional Republicans appear uncertain of how committed Trump is to a Russia-friendly foreign policy. During the 2016 campaign he said nice things about Putin personally, expressed a Russia-friendly view of the situation in Syria, changed the GOP platform to be less supportive of the Ukrainian government, and on a couple of points appeared to call the American commitment to NATO into question. But there were also points in the 2016 campaign when Trump called for higher taxes on the rich, only to embrace GOP orthodoxy when the chips were on the table.

Trump’s pick to serve as secretary of defense, retired Gen. James Mattis, has a very un-Trump-like view of Russia, as do most of the top admirals and generals in the current military. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, by contrast, is an ardent Russophile and a much more serious student of world affairs than his boss.

GOP Russia hawks may be hoping that by pushing Trump a little, they can persuade him to get orthodox on Russia just as he did on taxes. It’s entirely possible that Trump’s pro-Russian leanings came about largely by accident and do not reflect much more than gut instinct and affection for Flynn. Flynn is deeply disliked by much of the intelligence community and the top military brass and is fairly likely to be ineffectual as national security adviser. Perhaps he’ll be discarded as a liability soon enough (look at Chris Christie’s fall from grace) and Trump will implement an orthodox GOP foreign policy, just as he did on domestic policy. Then everyone can continue with the basic deal whereby Republicans run policy as usual while Trump does a populist shtick on Twitter.

That said, there are some real ideological affinities between Putin’s Russia and the new, Trump-esque populist movements that have arisen on the European right. Abandoning the burdensome task of defending Eastern Europe from Russian aggression in favor of collaborating with Russia on a broad anti-Islamic front in a clash of civilizations is a real policy idea that Trump may sincerely believe in. If so, Republicans will have to ask themselves whether that’s something they’re willing to swallow in exchange for a free hand in domestic policy.