Let’s get clearer on what this international episode is supposed to be about
We have reached a point — in fact, we probably reached it a while ago — where it is no longer useful to speak of “the Russia scandal” as though there exists a fixed, agreed-upon definition of it.
This happens when a political scandal goes from being a minor controversy to a national drama. Smaller political scandals can still be explosive and damaging, but they’re discrete and narrowly defined (think Roy Moore). The major scandals are so sprawling that they become amorphous, ambiguous, and multi-faceted. Often times, their boundaries are blurry and their long-term disgrace is not immediately obvious.
Consider Watergate, the most well-known political scandal in modern politics. Watergate involved a crime and a cover-up. Yet those were not the only salient features. At one point, the Supreme Court got involved and introduced a question about the constitutional parameters of presidential privilege. All three of these elements are importantly different. All three — and more — constitute what we mean today when we talk about Watergate.
Two decades later, Bill Clinton found himself embroiled in a scandal involving womanizing. Though popularly referred to as the Clinton scandal, it was two separate scandals: infidelity and perjury (not to mention Whitewater, the preceding investigation into the Clintons that hovered in the background and led into the investigation which eventually got the president impeached). Whitewater was about a separate issue altogether, yet it often gets lumped in with Clinton’s other transgressions.
As these episodes unfolded, the public had an interest in delineating the essence of the scandal: Was it the crime or cover-up? Was it the sex or the lies? Yet these scandals were more than just their most notorious moments.
Today the specter of “the Russia scandal” hangs over us like a Suzdal quilt. Yet what exactly is it? What is the Russia scandal supposed to be?
If what we’re seeking is an analogue to the above episodes, we’ll have to defer our answer until after Special Counsel Robert Mueller finishes his probe into the Trump campaign’s possible dealings with Russia during and after the 2016 election. That’s because, if we’re understanding the Russia scandal to mean wrongdoing on the part of either candidate Trump or President Trump, then we wouldn’t currently be able to conclude that such a scandal even exists.
But there are other facets to the notion of “the Russia scandal.”
Consider Russia’s many-sided campaign to disrupt our democratic processes during the 2016 presidential election. Even if it turns out Trump did not collude or coordinate with the Russian government, it is still incontrovertibly scandalous for Russia to have waged a discord campaign ultimately aimed at weakening our country.
American intelligence agencies believe Russia wanted Trump to win the 2016 election. Others assert Russia’s overriding goal was merely social disruption. At one point, it appears as though the CIA favored the first explanation whereas the FBI favored the second.
Yet it doesn’t take a logician to discover that these are not mutually exclusive motivations. The likeliest explanation for Russia’s behavior is that they wanted to sow discord and they wanted Trump to win the 2016 election. It’s even possible that the second interest was seen as being in service to the first — after all, didn’t Jeb Bush, in one of his lonely attempts at returning verbal fire during the primaries, call Trump the “chaos candidate”?
But whatever the case, the seriousness of Russian interference does not depend on anything Trump may or may not have done. Russia’s meddling is indictable in its own right. Let’s run through what we know Russia did.
According to a document jointly put out by the U.S. intelligence agencies in January of last year, it was Vladimir Putin himself who ordered “an influence campaign” to impact the 2016 election.
This campaign took many different forms and was carried out over a long period of time.
One form involved the hacking and releasing of information potentially harmful to Hillary Clinton’s political prospects. Russian elements — as well as entities sympathetic to Russian objectives, such as WikiLeaks — hacked and then leaked emails from key Democratic National Committee leaders, and then did the same, this time through a basic phishing scheme, with Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.
At the same time, the Russians reached out to the Trump campaign — specifically, to George Papadopoulos, an analyst with the Trump team — to inform them they were in possession of thousands of emails that could hurt Hillary Clinton.
And it wasn’t just the DNC and Podesta who were hacked. From a timeline CNN has provided:
DCLeaks, a self-described collective of “hacktivists” seeking to expose the influence of special interests on elected officials, [published] a batch of documents [on October 6, 2016] stolen from Clinton ally Capricia Marshall. DCLeaks is later identified as a front for Russian military intelligence.
Russia’s strategy also involved attempting to penetrate election systems in 21 states. In one case, this amounted to hacking voter registration rolls and downloading voter names, driver’s license numbers, and Social Security numbers (and more) from tens of thousands of U.S. citizens. In another, it involved breaching the access credentials of an elected official. In most cases, Russian scanning was unsuccessful, yet the takeaway should be Moscow’s brazenness in attempting to mess with the heart of our electoral process: the integrity of the voting system.
A report in the Intercept, based on a leaked National Security Agency document, details two penetration attempts, each carried out by Russian military intelligence. In August of 2016, Russian actors attempted to breach the security of a voter registration software developer months before the election, which would have given the Russians access to the information collected by the program once implemented. Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, also tried to steal the digital credentials of over 100 election officials just days before the election. These are serious attempts at election tampering: The source of the leak, a former NSA contractor improbably named Reality Winner, is scheduled to be tried next month under the Espionage Act.
In addition to leaking potentially damaging information it retrieved through hacking operations, Russia created disinformation and used professional trolls and bot armies to spread it.
The following is from a report put out by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who at the time of writing was James Clapper.
Before the election, Russian diplomats had publicly denounced the U.S. electoral process and were prepared to publicly call into question the validity of the results. Pro- Kremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, on election night in anticipation of Secretary Clinton’s victory, judging from their social media activity.
At the heart of Russia’s digital influence campaign was a Russian company called “Internet Research Agency.”
Facebook, the social media giant, confirmed that this group purchased thousands of ads on its platform over the past couple of years in an attempt to reach American audiences. Upwards of 150 million Americans ended up seeing them.
The Washington Post helpfully provides more details about the IRA’s activities:
While Clinton and Trump battled one another, Russian saboteurs and propagandists working for the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency were waging a secret political crusade to benefit Trump.
The group, which included 80 people, fashioned itself similarly to an actual political campaign, complete with departments for things such as search-engine optimization, data analysis, technology support and budgeting, according to prosecutors. . . .
The group of Russian trolls . . . quickly turned its focus to battleground “purple states” after being advised to do so in June 2016 by someone affiliated with a Texas-based, grassroots organization.
“Florida is still a purple state and we need to paint it red,” the group wrote two months later, using a false U.S. Facebook account to try to gin up real support for its Florida rallies. “If we lose Florida, we lose America.” . . .
The Russian-funded ads on social media emphasized the notion that Clinton was corrupt, prosecutors say. One trumpeted, “Ohio Wants Hillary 4 Prison,” and another carried the hashtag #HillaryForPrison2016 — mirroring the chants of “Lock her up” that had become commonplace at actual Trump rallies. . . .
In late September 2016, the Russian trolls allegedly created and bought Facebook ads for a series of “Miners for Trump” rallies aimed at bolstering a critical constituency for Trump: coal miners in Pennsylvania.
IRA trolls didn’t just coordinate from behind the scenes but actively posed as representatives of American-based movements in the interests of affecting U.S. political outcomes. They posed as Black Lives Matter, as the Tennessee GOP, as something called “the Army of Jesus,” and more.
The IRA utilized Facebook to coordinate their “activism,” yet paired their Facebook ad buys with offline election-related expenditures. A report in the New York Times cites Russian spending on props to be used during election events. On one occasion, the Russians arranged for a large cage to be built, and for a Hillary lookalike to be inside it, in order to be able to theatrically depict an imprisoned Hillary Clinton during a pro-Trump event.
On Friday, February 16, Special Counsel Mueller charged 13 individuals and 3 organizations with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Mueller’s indictment singles out the Internet Research Agency in particular.
So in 2016, Russian elements (a) likely hacked political actors and organizations (the DNC, John Podesta, and others), (b) penetrated voter registrations and election systems (stealing voter records, attempting to gain access to voting software, etc.), and (c) waged disinformation and digital influence campaigns in a variety of ways (creating and sharing fake news, memes, and propaganda; paying professional trolls to affect conversations; and unleashing an army of bots to influence digital trends). According to our intelligence leaders, they did this on Putin’s orders, in order to bolster their national aims at our expense.
It’s important to note that the most we can say about 2016 is that Russia meddled or that they interfered with our elections. We cannot say that they definitively influenced our elections, or that they “hacked our democracy.” The first suggests they attempted to influence our elections, but is agnostic as to whether they actually managed to move the political needle.
But they’re not done.
On Tuesday, February 13, U.S. intelligence leaders warned that Russia has already begun attempting to influence our 2018 midterm elections. This echoed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments from the week before.
According to Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, Russia’s strategy this time around is a familiar one: to spread disinformation on social platforms. Although it’s unclear, at this point in the year, whether Russia will also attempt to compromise our electoral systems, Moscow has already started executing its digital disruption strategy.
Consider the recent push to pressure lawmakers to #ReleaseTheMemo, a reference to the memo critical of the FBI put together by the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes. Russian bot armies helped this hashtag trend on Twitter and other platforms. It was a small-scale replay of 2016.
If all we could say about the Russia ordeal was that Moscow meddled in our 2016 election and has started to meddle in our 2018 midterms, that in and of itself would be sufficient to see it as a major scandal. But of course the most explosive element to all this is yet to be determined.
The country is currently awaiting news as to whether the President of the United States, while still a candidate, colluded or conspired with one of our chief geopolitical rivals to win the presidential election. Even if he did neither, the country also wants to know whether the president attempted to obstruct an investigation into his campaign’s connection to Russia.
This is the part of the scandal we can’t evaluate yet. It isn’t that we haven’t gotten our arms around it, as though the information is out there and all we have to do is process it; rather, it’s that the investigation — and, as a corollary, our knowledge of what transpired — is still unfolding. In this sense, this sprawling scandal is still a work in progress.
It will take time to form a canonical picture of what the Russia scandal really is. At the heart of it are two countries, rivals for global supremacy, the apocalyptic foreboding of Cold War hostilities still too recent to fade into irrelevance. Then there is Donald Trump, whose larger-than-life personality tramples over normalcy like a T-34 over the snow, and whose ethnonationalist impulses finally provide Vladimir Putin with a rival sovereignty framework that is not totally alien to the way he looks at the world.
Beyond the two state actors and their two principal figures, there is the question of what others surrounding these figures did and didn’t do. On Friday, we found out a lot more about what Putin’s associates did. Will Mueller uncover similarly damning information about members of Trump’s campaign? If so, was Trump involved? To what extent?
The Russia scandal is a massive, multifarious political story whose most important details are yet to be fully fleshed out. Yet even apart from the special counsel’s investigation into the Trump campaign, the phenomenon of Russian meddling into our elections — both then and now — is significant enough to warrant everyone’s concern.