Heads have certainly rolled over the DNC email scandal. Party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz had to step down, and acting chair Donna Brazile issued an apology to the Sanders campaign and anybody else who was offended by the emails exchanged between party staffers that were released by Wikileaks.
But there’s something utterly bizarre about the kind of coverage this story is getting. Evidence currently suggests that the Russian government may have attempted to sway the results of the U.S. presidential election. I put that in italics, because it ought to be in screaming 72-point headlines on every front page in America. And yet, it’s being treated like just one more odd story in a wacky election year, not much more important than the latest fundraising numbers or which ethnic group Donald Trump has insulted most recently.
So what’s going on? Let me offer some thoughts about why the story isn’t bigger than it is. First, the political reporters covering it have gotten distracted by the content of the emails, in which DNC staffers complain to each other about Bernie Sanders and detail the various forms of butt-kissing they have to do for big party donors. There’s always something compelling about seeing private communications that become public, and it also helps that Sanders supporters were quick to say, “See? See? They were plotting against us!”
But the truth is that the emails didn’t show that the DNC “rigged” the primaries in Hillary Clinton’s favor. Yes, DNC staffers plainly preferred that Clinton become the nominee. The DNC did appear to give more weight to the Clinton campaign’s desire for fewer debates. But there was nothing that the DNC did that seriously harmed his chances or meaningfully impacted the outcome of the nomination contest. The emails showed that some staffers talked about undermining Sanders — and that there was real hostility between the DNC and the Sanders campaign — but those DNC staffers never followed through.
And so, the emails didn’t reveal truly scandalous behavior on the part of any American political actors, which would be required to really get political reporters’ juices flowing — and get them eager to investigate and write story after story about it. Since the wrongdoing here may have been committed by Russian hackers, that makes it more interesting to foreign affairs and national security reporters (who are the ones writing most of the stories about the hack itself) than to the political reporters whose stories are given the most prominent play at the moment.
The next reason why it isn’t a bigger deal is that the aggrieved party, the Democrats, aren’t pushing the story forward as much as they might, first because they don’t want to attract more attention to the content of the emails, and second because they aren’t making the kind of vicious accusations Republicans would if the tables were turned — the kind of accusations we in the media eat up. Instead, they’re saying milquetoasty things like this from Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook: “When you put all this together, it’s a disturbing picture. I think voters need to reflect on that.”
Consider what would happen if the shoe was on the other foot. Imagine if the Republican Party’s emails had been hacked by the Russian government, and then those emails had been publicly released on the eve of the GOP convention in a fairly obvious attempt to embarrass the party, and it just so happened that the Democratic nominee and the Russian president had been blowing kisses to one another, and it just so happened that the Democratic nominee had been proposing a series of radical transformations to American foreign policy that could practically have been written by the Russian president in order to advance his aims. How would Republicans have reacted?
We all know the answer: They would be screaming their heads off, saying this just proves that the Democratic nominee hates America and is trying to destroy our position in the world. They’d be calling her a commie and a flag-burner and dirty unpatriotic hippie. And the media would duly pass along those criticisms.
But weirdly, nobody’s saying those kinds of things about Donald Trump, despite the fact that he is, without question, the most anti-American and un-American candidate in living memory. Not only does he have obvious disdain for the most fundamental American values like freedom of speech and religion, he is absolutely relentless in characterizing America as a miserable hellhole full of contemptible losers who barely deserve the prosperity and happiness he will shower down upon them through the force of his will (“I alone can fix it”).
Trump has also has publicly expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin many times, and has suggested undermining NATO and perhaps not honoring our mutual defense commitment if countries that had failed to please him were to be invaded by Russia, to the horror of Democrats and Republicans alike. Trump also has extensive business ties in Russia, and favors a decorating style one might refer to as “Late Russian Mobster.”
We have no way to know for certain what the motivation behind the DNC hack was and who ordered it, and we may never know. But there’s no question whom Vladimir Putin favors in this election. As Reuters notes:
Russian state TV, which hews closely to the Kremlin’s world view, has left little doubt however that Moscow would prefer Trump. It casts Clinton, whom Putin accused of stirring up protests against him in her role as U.S. Secretary of State in 2011, as a warmonger.
Now we should say that at the moment, most of the evidence of Russian involvement is circumstantial, if substantial. The cybersecurity firm hired by the DNC concluded that the hack likely came from the same Russian source that earlier hacked the Pentagon and the State Department. “The software code that I have seen from the hack had all the telltale signs of being Russian, including code re-used from other attacks,” another cybersecurity expert told Bloomberg’s Eli Lake. But as former Bush administration official Jack Goldsmith says, “the truth is that there is no public evidence whatsoever tying Russia to the hack. Attribution for cyberoperations of this sort is very tricky and tends to take some time.”
That being said, this hack represents something profoundly different from what we’ve seen before. We’ve known that foreign intelligence services from countries like China and Russia have in the past attempted to infiltrate not only government networks but those of other political organizations and actors, like the parties. What distinguishes this attack is that it wasn’t just for the purposes of surveillance. They weren’t trying to figure out what Americans are up to, they were trying to intervene to change the results of our election. Goldsmith suggests some even more frightening possibilities:
What if the hackers interspersed fake but even more damning or inflammatory emails that were hard to disprove? What if hackers break in to computers to steal or destroy voter registration information? What if they disrupted computer-based voting or election returns in important states during the presidential election? The legitimacy of a presidential election might be called into question, with catastrophic consequences. The DNC hack is just the first wave of possible threats to electoral integrity in the United States—by foreign intelligence services, and others.
For all we know, the DNC hack was a trial run for something much more ambitious. Raise your hand if you think election officials in, say, Florida have a bulletproof cybersecurity system. So maybe we ought to start worrying now.