Nearly every narrative about this year’s election has defied expectations. For starters, it wasn’t a Bush-Clinton coronation, but an insurgent season resulting in Donald Trump’s triumph over Jeb Bush and other Republican rivals, as well as Bernie Sanders’ challenge to Hillary Clinton up to the final primary. And despite its being the Citizens United era, throughout the race the most meaningful media story wasn’t about campaign ads, but e-mail.
And, most recently, even the e-mail focus has morphed from Clinton’s private server to the public release of cynical Democratic National Committee correspondence. (And as of late Friday, a reported hack on both the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.)
Fittingly, the scope of this scandal has shifted quickly. Sure, the WikiLeaks release made unity elusive at this week’s Democratic National Convention. But by far the more enduring impact may be that Russia is allegedly attempting to alter a U.S. presidential election.
“Presidential campaigns are really natural targets for espionage,” said Patrik Maldre, managing partner at Retel Partners, an Estonia-based consulting firm focusing on cybersecurity. “To send these documents or this information to media outlets or to publish them publicly really signals an intent not just to know and understand things about the political process, but crucially to play an active role in it. With this disclosure, the DNC hack really transitioned from espionage into the realm of influence operations.”
If so, it fits into an expanding pattern of Moscow meddling in international political processes. And it’s not just in neighbors such as Ukraine, but in Western Europe, where Russia allegedly backs right-wing movements in France, Hungary and beyond.
“Russia really aims to weaken and destabilize the U.S., and divide the transatlantic institutions and alliances that bind North America and Europe together, and so it’s really no secret that Russia has incorporated signals intelligence and cybercapabilities into the broader arsenal it uses to achieve these goals,” said Maldre.
Among Russia’s motives is creating a moral equivalency, however false, said Hannah Thoburn, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute who focuses on Eastern Europe and transatlantic alliances. “They see the United States and any activities of democracy promotion, any activities of supporting civil societies, civil rights, rule of law — those are the things that they see as undermining the authoritarian nature of the Russian system.”
If Russians were behind the attack, it’s uncertain if they triggered the timing. Either way, “it seems very clear that WikiLeaks has been used as a kind of conduit for these documents,” said Thoburn, who labeled it a “use of a second party to essentially do the dirty work.”
Coming on the eve of a convention meant to inspire unity, not unraveling, the timing couldn’t have been worse for Clinton. And if it was meant to boost Trump, there’s reason, said John Herbst, who served as U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan and Ukraine during the George W. Bush administration. “It’s very clear that the Russians would like to see Trump as president,” said Herbst, citing the “truly irresponsible things he said about NATO last week and the appeasement things he said about Russia and Ukraine.”
Herbst, a career diplomat who is now director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, was referring to Trump’s conditional response to a hypothetical Russian invasion of a Baltic nation, and his answer as to whether he might recognize Crimea as part of Russia and lift sanctions imposed for the annexation. (“Yes. We would be looking at that,” Trump said.) That response, counter to U.S. and European Union policy, was eclipsed by Trump saying, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing. I think you will be probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Trump ascribed that statement to sarcasm, but the ensuing controversy shifted the DNC story line from discordant Democrats to the GOP nominee. But just like the unexpected narratives throughout the race, the real issue may be more profound than mere partisan gain.
“By all measures, the election system is a critical piece of American society and Western democratic societies in general. Can this be considered an attack on the critical infrastructure of the country?” Maldre rhetorically asked. “It’s striking at the heart of the social contract between citizens and the state. It’s trying to undermine trust between the elite and the regular voters …, and if there is no response to this, then that will be another signal to Russia and other parties that this kind of behavior is acceptable.”
Indeed, a response — and the ramifications should the allegations against Russia prove true — is something Trump, Clinton and President Obama all need to deeply and strategically consider.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.