President Trump is willing, under duress, to briefly and begrudgingly admit that Russian “meddling” took place in 2016 before reverting to calling it a “big hoax.” But he always maintains that the plot against America had no impact; he describes it as a “Democrat excuse for losing the ’16 Election.” Faithfully echoing the president, other Republicans, such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), say it’s “clear” that the Russian interference “didn’t have a material effect on our elections.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders even claims that the U.S. intelligence community reached that conclusion.
Not quite. Here is the intelligence community’s assessment, partially declassified in January 2017: “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.” When then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo claimed last fall that “the intelligence community's assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election,” his own agency rebuked him.
While the intelligence agencies are silent on the impact of Russia’s attack, outside experts who have examined the Kremlin campaign — which included stealing and sharing Democratic Party emails, spreading propaganda online and hacking state voter rolls — have concluded that it did affect an extremely close election decided by fewer than 80,000 votes in three states. Clint Watts, a former FBI agent, writes in his recent book, “Messing with the Enemy,” that “Russia absolutely influenced the U.S. presidential election,” especially in Michigan and Wisconsin, where Trump’s winning margin was less than 1 percent in each state.
We still don’t know the full extent of the Russian interference, but we know its propaganda reached 126 million people via Facebook alone. A BuzzFeed analysis found that fake news stories on Facebook generated more social engagement in the last three months of the campaign than did legitimate articles: The “20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.” Almost all of this “fake news” was either started or spread by Russian bots, including claims that the pope had endorsed Trump and that Hillary Clinton had sold weapons to the Islamic State.
Elsewhere on social media, tens of thousands of Russian bots spread pro-Trump messages on Twitter, which has already notified about 1.4 million users that they interacted with Russian accounts. The Russian disinformation, propagating hashtags such as #Hillary4Prison and #MAGA, reflected what the Trump campaign was saying. The Russian bots even claimed after every presidential debate that Trump had won, whereas objective viewers gave each one to Clinton.
Russia also hacked voting systems in at least 39 states, and while there is no evidence that vote tallies were changed, Russians may have used the stolen data to target their social media or shared the results with the Trump campaign. The Senate Intelligence Committee found that “in a small number of states” the Russians may have been able to “alter or delete voter registration data,” potentially disenfranchising Clinton voters.
And then there was the crucial impact of the Russian hacks of Democratic documents disseminated primarily by WikiLeaks. The first tranche of stolen documents — more than 19,000 emails and 8,000 attachments — was strategically released on July 22, 2016, three days before the Democratic convention. The resulting news coverage disrupted the Clinton campaign’s plans by creating the impression that the Democratic National Committee was biased against Bernie Sanders and forcing DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign.
The second tranche of stolen documents was released on Oct. 7, just 29 minutes after The Post reported on the “Access Hollywood” videotape in which Trump is heard boasting about grabbing women by the genitals. These emails, stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, distracted voter attention by revealing the transcripts of lucrative speeches Clinton had given to Goldman Sachs, a populist boogeyman.
A third release of stolen emails, on Oct. 11, revealed that Democratic operative Donna Brazile, while working at CNN, had provided debate questions to Clinton during the primaries and that senior Democratic operatives, who were themselves Catholics, had exchanged emails disparaging Republicans who cherry-picked their faith for political gain. This fueled Trump’s narrative that the election was “rigged” and that the “Clinton team” was, as he said, “viciously attacking Catholics and Evangelicals.” The latter charge, unfair as it was, proved especially important in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — swing states with lots of Catholic voters.
Little wonder that Trump said “I love WikiLeaks” and mentioned its revelations 164 times in the last month of the campaign. “This WikiLeaks stuff is unbelievable,” Trump said on Oct. 12. Eight days later, he marveled, “Boy, that WikiLeaks has done a job on her, hasn’t it?”
Now, by contrast, Trump and his apologists pretend that the Russian intervention — including the WikiLeaks revelations — was no big deal. That beggars belief. Even if the Russians had failed, they still attacked our democracy. Yet they didn’t fail: Trump won. Russian disinformation wasn’t the only factor in the outcome and was probably less important in the end than FBI Director James B. Comey’s announcement 11 days before the election that he was reopening the Clinton email investigation. But Watts concludes: “Without the Russian influence effort, I believe Trump would not have even been within striking distance of Clinton on Election Day.” That is the inconvenient truth the Putin Republicans won’t admit.
Michael Chertoff and Grover Norquist: We need to hack-proof our elections. An old technology can help.