We may soon find out if Russia actually did interfere in our election:
President Obama has ordered a “full review” of Russian hacking during the November election, as pressure from Congress has grown for greater public understanding of exactly what Moscow did to interfere in the electoral process.
“We may have crossed into a new threshold, and it is incumbent upon us to take stock of that, to review, to conduct some after-action, to understand what has happened and to impart some lessons learned,” Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland-security adviser, Lisa Monaco, told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
Obama wants the report before he leaves office on Jan. 20, Monaco said.
Which raises three questions. First, what might investigators find? Second, what would happen if evidence of serious interference were discovered? And third, why do this now?
It’s unclear whether the findings of the investigation will ever be released; Monaco declined to commit to making it public. But it is evident that members of Congress in both parties — who have been pressuring the administration to undertake this investigation — do want to get to the bottom of whether there was interference in part to determine whether there is cause for public concern about our electoral and political process.
Rep. Elijah Cummings and other House Democrats recently urged the Obama administration to brief them on what is already known about alleged Russian interference, explicitly in part because of worries that Russia may have already “succeeded in weakening Americans’ trust in our electoral institutions” by creating disruptions. Members of Congress will get briefed on the investigation’s findings, and even if they are not released, those Members could presumably speak out publicly in circumspect ways about what was discovered. A limited release of the findings is also possible.
What might be found? It’s useful to divide the possible findings into two categories. The less serious category would be possible efforts to hack into the emails of Clinton campaign and DNC officials or to somehow encourage the spreading of fake news. The intelligence community has already declared itself “confident” that Russia “directed” the widespread hacking of “U.S. political organizations” that led to months and months of email leaks. And senior administration officials confirm that the investigation will focus on the hacking of the emails of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta and DNC officials. The more serious category of finding would be some form of compromising of the electoral process, but the chances of that would appear to be extremely remote.
Still, it would be valuable to establish whether the former did or did not happen, says Dan Tokaji, a professor of election law at Ohio State University. If it didn’t happen, that might offer some grounds for renewed confidence in the process. If it did happen, and the public were to be apprised of this, “it might cause voters in future elections to be more skeptical of things they read and come across in their twitter feeds,” Tokaji told me.
Of course, even if Russian interference of some kind were established — and it’s important to stress that we do not know if that will even happen — there is no chance of any change in the outcome. “Any action that the Russian government might have taken, we might think it was undesirable, but it wouldn’t be grounds for a redo or any other legal relief,” Tokaji says. “The courts certainly wouldn’t order that in this case. None of this is going to change the fact that Donald Trump won the election.”
However, this isn’t to say that such a finding would have no impact at all. Beyond the fact that the public has a right to know whether there was interference, there might be another reason the administration is pursuing this course of action right now.
James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan international security think tank, suggests that a finding of Russian interference of some kind might “hem in the next administration,” i.e., the Trump administration. That’s because any evidence that Russia tried to swing the election in some form or other — if such evidence is found — might shine a harsher light on Trump’s foreign policy choices.
Trump has publicly expressed skepticism that Russia was behind the hacks, claiming that “I don’t believe they interfered,” and suggesting that “it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.” Trump has also suggested that he wants much smoother relations with Russia.
“But if the administration releases some information on Russian interference, saying, ‘here’s how they did it and here’s what their intent was,’ it would make it harder to argue that it was a hacker in New Jersey,” Lewis tells me. “That could help shape our approach towards Russia next year. The hope is, Trump would have to be more careful.”