There were several remarkable moments during the second presidential debate of Donald Trump's talent for denying the obvious. There was the time he asked moderator Anderson Cooper why he didn't ask Hillary Clinton about her email server immediately after Clinton had gotten done answering a question about her email server. (Cooper, baffled: "We brought up the e-mails.") There was the moment in which he reiterated his false claim that he'd opposed the war in Iraq before it began. And there was his reply to Clinton when she pointed out that Russian actors had been behind a number of recent hacks.
"I notice, anytime anything wrong happens, they like to say the Russians are -- she doesn't know if it's the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking," Trump said. "But they always blame Russia. And the reason they blame Russia because they think they're trying to tarnish me with Russia. I know nothing about Russia. I know -- I know about Russia, but I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia."
Clinton herself may not be able to walk through the evidence that agents of the Russian government were behind the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and other groups, but she doesn't need to. Last week, the government released a statement eliminating any question about the culprits. That statement begins:
The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process.
It was clear before the statement that the Russians were behind the hacks. As far back as July, reporting explored the evidence available to even outside observers that Russia was behind the hack. (For example: One initial release included Russian-language markers that were subsequently removed from the cache.)
A report from NBC News on Monday indicated that another person had been informed that Russia was behind the hacks: Donald Trump.
"A senior U.S. intelligence official assured NBC News that cybersecurity and the Russian government's attempts to interfere in the 2016 election have been briefed to, and discussed extensively with, both parties' candidates, surrogates and leadership, since mid-August," NBC's Robert Windrem and William Arkin reported. They quote the unnamed official: "To profess not to know at this point is willful misrepresentation."
Willful misrepresentation is not outside of the realm of possibility for Donald Trump, of course. So let's look a bit more closely at what he said.
He recognizes that there's political harm in accepting the idea that he's somehow linked to Russia or that the Russian government would like to see him win. His default position is to sow uncertainty, which is the angle he takes. He does this in two ways:
• By questioning if Clinton (or anyone else) knows who did the hacking.
• By questioning if hacking even happened.
"Maybe there is no hacking." Journalist Julian Sanchez noted that second comment on Twitter, and walked through the implications. "[W]as he implying the IC [intelligence community] would make up Russian intrusions to smear him? What else would 'maybe there is no hacking' mean?" Sanchez asked. "If the IC attributes hacks to Russia with 'high confidence' and you question not just the attribution but the existence of the hacks doesn't that pretty straightforwardly entail that you're really saying: 'Maybe they're lying and it's all a big hoax.'"
In the spirit of Occam, it seems far more likely that Trump was simply casting as much doubt as possible as widely as he could cast it, and not that he was sincerely putting forward an argument that no hack had occurred and that suggestions it had happened were part of a conspiracy against him. His goal here isn't to undercut the intelligence community, it's to give people an option to seize upon besides "Russia wants Trump to win and is trying to help him." But from such asides, a thousand conspiracy theories can bloom.
What's made Trump so successful during this campaign is that his attempts to distract voters from reality have had surprising success. Few other candidates would think to shed doubt so blatantly on something that's nearly certain, especially something that they had likely been told directly by government officials. But this is Donald Trump, a guy who wonders why the media never asks about the thing it just asked about.
Assuming that ever even happened. Many people are saying it didn't.