The Russian influence campaign during the 2016 election was sophisticated not just on a technical level, but in terms of its understanding of American politics and the internal dynamics of the Democratic Party. Sophisticated enough to raise the question of whether the Russians were helped by any Americans, especially Americans with professional experience in politics and/or direct involvement in the 2016 campaign — a question whose relevance has only grown stronger now that we know Donald Trump Jr., at a minimum, was actively interested in collaborating with the Russian government.
When Trump Jr. agreed to meet with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, he was seeking dirt — negative information — about Hillary Clinton. He thought the Russian government might be in possession of such information and willing to provide it. According to his own account of the meeting, “it quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”
But what’s fascinating is that in a crucial sense, the Russians never came up with meaningful information about Clinton. Nothing uncovered in either the hacks of the Democratic National Committee servers or John Podesta’s inbox revealed anyone doing anything illegal. What they did instead was exacerbate internal tensions within the Democratic Party. And in the case of the DNC hack, they did so in an expertly timed way.
Information that was bound to anger supporters of Bernie Sanders’s campaign was released at precisely the right moment to derail the unity exercise of the party’s national convention in Philadelphia. That Donald Trump Jr.’s emails with Veselnitskaya specifically note that “especially later in the summer” would be an ideal time for collaboration is particularly eye-opening.
If the information had come out earlier or later, it would have been much less potent. But releasing the documents the weekend before the convention began managed to put a pall of conflict over the first several days of the proceedings.
Russian hackers derailed the Democratic convention
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders waged a vigorous primary campaign, but it was mostly issue-oriented rather than personal (check out this 1992 debate between Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton for a look at a legitimately vicious primary), and the nature of the argument was conducive to compromise.
On issue after issue, Clinton was proposing to shift policy in a more progressive direction than the status quo — raising the minimum wage from $8.75 to $12, for example — while Sanders argued for going further, to $15.
The first day or two of the Democratic convention was meant to highlight unity on that basis, with Sanders arguing that supporters of a higher minimum wage, of more federal regulation of banks and greenhouse gas emitters, and more federal spending on health and education, should turn out and vote for Hillary Clinton, who also supported all of those things.
Instead, the focus landed on Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was forced to resign over internal emails that revealed DNC staffers’ frustration with Sanders’s insistence on playing out his campaign until the last possible moment.
"I think she should resign, period," Sanders said on an ABC appearance the morning before the convention started. "And I think we need a new chair who is going to lead us in a very different direction."
Wasserman Schultz did ultimately resign, only to be given a courtesy title as an honorary co-chair of Clinton’s campaign. This, in turn, was misinterpreted by many on the left as Clinton rewarding her for malfeasance rather than simply letting her save face. Critically, some of the most over-the-top coverage of the leaks appeared in the New York Observer, a publication that happens to be owned by Jared Kushner.
“Clinton Rewards Wasserman Schultz’s Shady Behavior With a New Job,” reported the Observer’s Michael Sainato in a July 25 follow-up to his July 22 story “Wikileaks Proves Primary Was Rigged: DNC Undermined Democracy.”
Bogus rigging allegations were a potent tool
These rigging allegations, relentlessly hyped by Fox News coverage and made directly by a newspaper owned by the Trump family, proved to be more potent than many Democrats realized at the time. The Democratic platform committee had some difficult conversations, especially around pipelines and the Israel-Palestine conflict, but on the main issue areas that had been the focus of the campaign, it was not too hard to come up with a platform everyone could be excited about.
It turns out, however, that the disagreements between rank-and-file Clinton and Sanders supporters on policy issues were relatively mild. The really big disagreement was specifically on the question of whether or not politics is a “rigged game.”
There was obviously nothing Clinton could do to compromise around the fact that she was very much a central member of the American political establishment. So any news story that hit on this theme of rigging was inherently dangerous to the cause of party unity. And the Russians behind it did a good job of using false-flag tactics to frame the issue, raising “rigging” concerns from a Sanders-esque left-wing perspective rather than from a right-wing Trumpist perspective even though the purpose was to help Trump.
Russians timed and framed this well
Had the DNC emails come out earlier, they would, of course, have been an issue in the 2016 primary campaign. And while it’s conceivable that they would have helped Sanders win the nomination, it’s more likely that he still would have lost. Either way, they would have been part of the campaign, and the convention would have been an opportune moment to put the disagreement in the past.
By raising the issue after the primary was over but before the party had come together in a big show of unity, the emails were released at a perfect moment for making trouble.
And at the time they were released, WikiLeaks’ primary brand in the West was as a left-wing muckraking site — the kind of place to which Sanders supporters might turn for a critical glimpse at the political establishment. Russia’s state-owned English-language media simultaneously offered a steady diet of overheated takes about a rigged primary that were framed as left-wing attacks on Clinton.
Clinton’s campaign team, to their credit, had this plan nailed correctly at the time. They argued that the real story the media should be focused on was a coordinated Russian government effort to help Donald Trump win the election. Had the media seen it that way at the time, the revelations would of course have been covered differently. And, critically, had Sanders and his supporters seen it that way at the time, they likely would have reacted differently. But instead, the timing and framing were just right for Sanders backers to see the revelations as aligned with their own campaign against the political establishment.
All in all, it was a very skillful deployment of information that was not, on its face, particularly damning.
The Russians aren’t always this good
The Russian government, clearly, is systematically very sophisticated at the technical and social engineering aspects of hacking. But that doesn’t always make them masterful at the full execution of a political information operation.
Hacked emails from French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron’s campaign, for example, seem to have fallen flat during the election in part because the timing was off. The emails dropped during the French media’s pre-campaign blackout period. What’s more, the basic dynamics of a head-to-head race between Macron and Marine Le Pen were simply so unfavorable to Le Pen as to make Macron’s lead insurmountable. The leaks might have been better deployed during the first round of campaigning, aiming to push Macron into third place. Or else maybe later, during the National Assembly elections, when they could have been deployed to encourage people to vote against creating a majority for his brand new En Marche party.
The Russians had the technical competence, in other words, but they lacked the judgment and knowledge about French politics to take maximum advantage of it.
Similarly, hacked emails from the staffs of Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham — two leading Russia hawks — have had no meaningful impact on their careers or political standing, since hacks alone don’t work outside of a thoughtful political context.
The DNC hacks, by contrast, were highly effective. It’s impossible to say, of course, how decisive they proved in the end. But it’s true that even as Trump performed historically badly with young voters, Clinton was hurt by relatively low turnout among under-30s and a relatively high level of defection to third-party candidates. To attribute all of her problems with mobilizing Trump-hating young people to the hack would, of course, be going too far. But it’s fair to say that she lost in large part due to a failure of the unity efforts with Sanders, efforts that were sabotaged by a very well-timed and very well-framed release of stolen DNC emails.
It’s certainly possible that the Russians merely got lucky, or that they happen to be much more plugged into American political dynamics than they are to French ones. But they also naturally raise the question of whether the Russians were assisted by anyone on this side of the Atlantic — questions whose import has only grown sharper since we learned that key members of the Trump campaign were actively seeking Russian assistance.