Most of the headlines from Vice President Pence's cybersecurity speech Tuesday focused on how he clearly enunciated what President Trump won't: that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. And he did.
But the full context of what Pence said is far less antithetical to Trump — and is part of a long-running disinformation campaign the Trump administration has waged for a year and a half. Even in flatly tagging Russia as the perpetrator, Pence inserted a carefully worded caveat that can't help but undersell the problem and damage efforts to prevent a repeat in 2018.
Here's what he said, per The Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima (emphasis added):
“Russia’s goal was to sow discord and division and weaken the American people’s faith in our democracy,” Pence said. “And while no actual votes were changed, any attempt to interfere in our elections is an affront to our democracy, and it will not be allowed. The United States of America will not tolerate any foreign interference in our elections from any nation-state — not from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea or anyone else. As President Trump said, ‘We’re not going to have it.’ ”
“No actual votes were changed.” This is a regular talking point offered by the White House, and has been for months. At times, officials including Pence and even then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo have wrongly ascribed this conclusion to the intelligence community, which pointedly said it would not offer any such conclusion. But more and more, it's being thrown out there without such attribution. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) even said a version of it. “It's also clear that it didn't have a material effect,” Ryan said.
But here's the thing: This is a laughable contention. It's not serious. And any politician with an ounce of campaign experience and logic knows it.
There were nearly 140 million votes in the 2016 presidential election. To make this claim, you would have to get in the heads of virtually every voter (and potential voter who stayed home) in America and psychoanalyze their decisions. It's impossible. The odds that not a single, solitary vote hinged on anything the Russians injected into our campaign is virtually nil.
That's especially true given the most recent indictments in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's Russia investigation. Last month, 12 Russian military intelligence officers were indicted on a charge of hacking Democrats' computers and distributing the information during the 2016 election. The emails distributed by WikiLeaks dominated the news for days. This wasn't just some Russian bots pushing dubious fake news to a few thousand people on social media; this was Russia inserting a major story line into the 2016 election that wouldn't have existed if not for its efforts.
It would be one thing for Pence to say, “I don't think Russia changed the winner of the election.” Okay. That's still complete guesswork based upon nothing, but at least it's plausible. Yet that's not the argument here; the argument is that it didn't change any votes.
Pence and his allies will probably argue that his comment referred only to Russians hacking actual voting machines or changing totals — which the intelligence community has said it found no evidence of. If you were the fact-checker, you'd probably have to knock a Pinocchio or two off for that. But the context of his remarks include nothing about hacking; they're about influencing the election. The impression that's left is that he's talking about Russia being completely unsuccessful in shifting even one vote with its interference.
The full volume of the Trump administration's comments on this topic can't be ignored either. This fits neatly with what can only be described as an effort to mislead and obfuscate in the name of keeping Trump happy by downplaying the idea that Russia elected him. Officials have regularly sought to cast doubt upon not just the idea that Russia's interference mattered, but also that it favored Trump and even that it was ordered by Vladimir Putin. Oftentimes, like Pence, they choose their words carefully so they are at least defensible, while being clearly misleading.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in recent weeks has made great pains on multiple occasions to avoid publicly agreeing with some of the intelligence community's conclusions. At the Aspen Security Forum two weeks ago, she blamed the interference on “Russian government actors,” even though the intel community's report directly blames Putin. She also argued there was no evidence Russia favored either political party in its attacks on “our election infrastructure,” specifically. Why Russia would favor Trump generally but not in that area is anybody's guess, but Nielsen decided it was important to insert that caveat. Much like Pence's comment, this aimed to be perhaps strictly true and defensible, while being completely misleading to everyday Americans.
This might seem like so much nitpicking, but consider this: Our intelligence community evaluates that Russia is still trying to impact American elections. Part of thwarting that effort involves the public bringing pressure to bear on elected officials to take action. If Pence is in one breath saying Russia interfered but also suggesting it didn't matter one bit, there will be considerably less impetus for action among those who are inclined to believe him.
That's the real danger of these false and misleading talking points. These officials are undoubtedly trying to avoid alienating Trump, who in recent weeks has demonstrated he still wants to cast doubt on Russian interference. But catering to him and obscuring the truth comes with real-world costs.