The CIA dropped a bomb on Friday. A big one. The Washington Post reported that a secret CIA memo concluded that Russia sought to influence the 2016 election by hacking the emails of the Democratic National Committee and the email server of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and by passing the information to Wikileaks with the specific goal of benefiting Donald Trump’s candidacy.
Later on Friday evening, The New York Times dropped a second bomb, reporting that the FBI knew that Russian operatives had hacked email servers connected to the Republican National Committee but had elected not to release that information to Wikileaks. The FBI’s conclusions about Russia fell short of the extent of the CIA’s–that Russia only sought to undermine the electoral process, but not necessarily to promote any candidate over the other–but the report refuted the RNC’s claims that they had never been hacked.
This is bad. This is very bad. Not only for the health of the American electoral system, but also for the faith and confidence that the American populace should have for an incoming presidential administration. Although Hillary Clinton’s electoral vote advantage has now swelled to 2.8 million votes, Trump won the electoral vote by only 80,000 votes spread over three states. Any qualitative factor, especially the heavy negative coverage for Hillary Clinton in the final two weeks of the election because of the ongoing email scandal, could have swayed the electoral outcome. We will never be able to determine the ultimate damage done by Russian hacking and leaking on the vote itself, but the faith in our most recent electoral outcome has been indisputably soiled.
The extraordinary level of Russian interference presented in the leaked CIA report has become fodder for a few anti-establishment figureheads on both ends of the ideological spectrum to solidify critiques of current American foreign policy. Some of the responses on the right have been categorically predictable, such as the outright dismissal of the CIA report by the inner-circle of Trump’s transition team and from Trump himself, and a twisted rationalization by a few Trump supporters that Russia somehow had America’s interests in mind by supporting their Manchurian candidate.
Responses from the left have been more factual but dangerously unconstructive. Noam Chomsky, one of the prominent voices and widely cited thinkers of leftist politics, dismissed the earlier reports of Russian meddling in the American election during an interview with Al Jazeera English by pointing out that the U.S. has itself meddled in elections around the world historically. While this is a true and well-considered point, he and other critics from his corner overlook the fact that Trump, the benefactor of America’s retributive medicine-tasting, possesses the mindset to not only continue the policy of American inference in domestic politics of other nations, but also to double or triple-down on that tradition in truly destructive ways.
Earlier on Friday, President Barack Obama called for a through intelligence dig into the extent of foreign hacking in the last few presidential election cycles, with particular attention on this year’s election, and expects the report on his desk before he leaves office on January 20th. We do not know how far down the rabbit hole will go, and it is very likely that the public will not be fully apprised of the results of that investigation outside of any information revealed to key congressional members or that has already been released to the press, but there are a few pieces of information we can glean from the double-explosions from Friday’s intelligence leaks.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Is Devoid of Moral Leadership
One of the most eye-opening revelations of the Post story is that the intelligence community knew months before the election about Russia’s intentions to interfere with the election process and feared that they would at least attempt to tamper with the vote. In September, President Obama convened a secret bi-partisan meeting to present the intelligence data and encourage lawmakers to sign a joint statement, appealing to specific states to accept federal assistance to prevent possible Russian hacking of their election systems. While Democrats united behind the idea, the GOP leadership were divided, particularly because of Mitch McConnell’s refusal to comply. McConnell not only questioned the intelligence, but also threatened to accuse any attempt to release a statement as mere partisan politics.
Not only did McConnell scuttle the warning, but he also later became the benefit of graft when Trump appointed his wife, former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, as his Transportation Secretary.
Perhaps we should give McConnell the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he really disagreed with the evidence. Perhaps he suspected that Obama was engaged in some sort of cynical partisan politics. But based on the story’s description of the meeting, we have to wonder, after he heard the evidence. After he heard the seriousness of the intelligence, that the nation faced the risk of “unprecedented meddling by a foreign power in our election process.” After he heard not only Democrats, but also some of his fellow Republicans in the meeting agree to communicate these concerns to state election officials, either privately or publicly, why he decided to cast aside all that he heard and witnessed and threatened the entire endeavor with petty accusations of partisan politics.
What questions did McConnell ask himself in the meeting? Even if the intelligence was faulty, would protecting our electoral process not have been enough for him to exercise even a basic level of caution in light of potential Russian meddling? Even if Obama had been acting cynically, why would he think Obama would have gone to the lengths he made to issue a joint statement when he could have done so without Republican support? It seems that, based on his cheap, reductive accusation of cynical politics in light of the seriousness of the matter, that he had few questions in mind about the health and welfare of our nation’s electoral process.
This is not the mark of a leader who placed his nation first. This is a leader who sought to place his party above his country. Mitch McConnell was not a patriot in this meeting, and he should resign or pay an electoral price for his decision.
American Voters, Meet Russia Circa 2016
The Post and Times stories were informational bombshells, and Americans should be very concerned about what these stories reveal about Russia’s threat to Western democracy. It is unclear how many Americans know about Russia’s complex current socio-economic structure and their more recent military exploits in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria. Many Americans more likely than not understand that Russia no longer exists as the Communist superpower of the twentieth century. All of that came undone after the fall of European communism from 1989 to 1991.
However, the kumbaya moment of international unity under neo-capitalism–the “end of history” that Francis Fukuyama naively described during the 1990s–no longer exists in modern Russia. One way to describe today’s Russia is that it is a semi-autocratic oligarchy with renewed imperial ambitions. As Larry Diamond explained in The Atlantic, Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to “make Russia great again.” This means, through a mixture of clandestine misinformation campaigns and military exercises, to reestablish hegemonic control over former Soviet republics, forcing the West to once again acknowledge Russia as a superpower.
Whatever division the Putin government can incite and exploit to achieve this end, they will, and they have in South Ossetia and in Crimea. Their oddly constructed proxy war in Syria seems at first glace a buffoonish effort to support Assad as an affront to the West, but it falls in line with Putin’s goals of solidifying alliances in the region necessary to spread Russian interests. Now that Trump, who plans to change American policy toward Russia’s involvement in Syria, will be entering the White House, and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s renewed economic ties to Russia, Putin’s hold on the region will be firmer.
Putin has taken advantage of the anti-globalism, anti-immigration sentiment in pockets of Europe and the United States to sew together a loose coalition of ideologically-friendly conditions that will open doors for Russia into Eastern Europe. The Brexit vote in June has created a less stable European Union as Great Britain determines the timeline and manner of its exit. The rejection of constitutional reforms in Italy this month, that led to the resignation of the center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, has created further instability in the region. In September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union Party suffered a surprising defeat in her home state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, signaling a potential challenge to her chancellorship in next year’s German federal elections. All of these populist victories over the current world order destabilizes a once unified ideological wall that has opposed Putin’s autocratic behavior.
It is important that American voters, particularly conservatives who have long heralded the toppling of the Soviet Union as a grand ideological victory for capitalist democracy, understand that the current state of Russian geo-politics has since adopted an especially pernicious, underhanded form. Not only should Western nations call out Russia where intelligence unsurfaces Putin puppetry, but they need to be hypervigilant given the many inroads that digital communication provides for Russia to cause discord.
Senior Republicans May Be Already Sharpening Their Knives
Early Sunday morning, Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Jack Reed (D-RI) issued a bi-partisan statement calling for investigations into Russian efforts to influence the election. It was a statement that was three months overdue following Mitch McConnell’s scuttling of the earlier bi-partisan public statement proposed by President Obama.
The Trump transition team’s arrogant, almost fatuous dismissal of the CIA report also publicly attacked the credibility of the CIA, which has alarmed a few senior Republican officials. Even more vexing to senior Republicans, Trump has nominated Exxon-Mobile CEO Rex Tillerson, who has long ties with Putin.
Republicans wish for a unified, three-branch government, but Trump’s roguish behavior challenges that idea. Historian Allan Lichtman, who predicted Trump’s victory, has also predicted his impeachment. If Trump continues to press a friendlier relationship with Russia amidst congressional investigations and hearings into Russian meddling in our election process, and continues to challenge the integrity of the American intelligence apparatus, it will not take much for House Republicans to stitch together enough evidence to conduct an investigation under the Articles of Impeachment. The Republican establishment would likely not hesitate to excise the Trump boil from their party and move Vice President-elect Mike Pence into the presidency and House Speaker Tim Ryan into the vice presidency, whatever fallout from Trump’s supporters be damned.
Regardless, progressives should support the bi-partisan call for an investigation into Russian influence in our electoral system and contact their state representatives in the U.S. Congress to support the endeavor… unless you live in Kentucky, which in that case we should work like hell to eject Mitch McConnell.
Whether all of this new information will influence the electoral college vote on December 19th is unknown. At this point, the cards still seem to say that the vote will continue as has been customary, following the electoral results from November 8th. Otherwise, Americans would be remiss not to pay close attention to these troubling developments. Vigilance is a must when our democratic institution is so imperiled.