Proving the source of a cyberattack is notoriously difficult. But researchers have concluded that the [Democratic Party] national committee was breached by two Russian intelligence agencies, which were the same attackers behind previous Russian cyberoperations at the White House, the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff last year. And metadata from the released emails suggests that the documents passed through Russian computers. Though a hacker claimed responsibility for giving the emails to WikiLeaks, the same agencies are the prime suspects. Whether the thefts were ordered by Mr. Putin, or just carried out by apparatchiks who thought they might please him, is anyone’s guess. …
It was a remarkable moment: Even at the height of the Cold War, it was hard to find a presidential campaign willing to charge that its rival was essentially secretly doing the bidding of a key American adversary. But the accusation is emerging as a theme of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, as part of an attempt to portray Mr. Trump not only as an isolationist, but also as one who would go soft on confronting Russia as it threatens nations that have shown too much independence from Moscow or, in the case of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, joined NATO.
Sanger’s story is simply the cherry on top of the suspicion sundae that has been building over the weekend. An awful lot of security contractors have reached this assessment. So have political writers. For example, as commentators, TPM’s Josh Marshall and Bloomberg’s Eli Lake do not agree on much. In recent days, however, both of them have written pieces suggesting that Vladimir Putin’s Russia was likely behind both the hack of Democratic National Committee emails and the sending of them to Wikileaks.
Lake’s column contains a source that’s quite surprising:
Mike Flynn, who served as Defense Intelligence Agency director between 2012 and 2014 and is an adviser to the Trump campaign, told me he wouldn’t be surprised if the Russians were behind the DNC hack. “Both China and Russia have the full capability to do this,” he said. “If someone were to find out Russia did this I would not be surprised at all.”
Marshall’s column is more ambitious in its allegations:
At a minimum, Trump appears to have a deep financial dependence on Russian money from persons close to Putin. And this is matched to a conspicuous solicitousness to Russian foreign policy interests where they come into conflict with US policies which go back decades through administrations of both parties. There is also something between a non-trivial and a substantial amount of evidence suggesting Putin-backed financial support for Trump or a non-tacit alliance between the two men.
Indeed, as Cheryl Rofer and Franklin Foer have documented suggestive links between members of Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. Then there are the financial interconnections between Trump’s business and Russia. Last month the Post wrote about the Trump family’s dependence on Russian finance and interest in Russian projects. And it is no secret that the Russian government has deployed a variety of tactics to influence Western democracies ranging from disinformation campaigns to troll armies.
The smoke has gotten thick enough to require a dismissive Trump tweet:
The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC e-mails, which should never have been written (stupid), because Putin likes me
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2016
Indeed, this would be laughable on its face in a normal election cycle if it wasn’t for the fact that:
- Donald Trump is the GOP nominee for president;
- Trump also tweets stuff like this:
Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow – if so, will he become my new best friend?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 19, 2013
So there’s a LOT of smoke. Is there any fire? That is to say, is there any proper causal evidence that Donald J. Trump is a patsy of Vladimir Putin?
No, I don’t see it. Yet.
First of all, let’s dismiss the part of this story that connects folks like Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Mike Flynn to Russia. Those links are there, but they are also irrelevant for the campaign. If there is anything we have learned about Donald Trump’s campaign to date, it’s that non-family underlings don’t matter. Foreign policy advisers like Page or Flynn certainly don’t matter. I’m not saying that these connections are not worth exploring, just that they are not part of some master grand plan.
Second of all, while the evidence for Russia being behind the DNC hack is certainly suggestive, it’s far from ironclad. Click here, here and here for some critical pushback on these stories. I certainly think the link merits further investigation. But I’m uncomfortable with the ironclad casual assertion that “Russia was behind this” that is starting to form inside the Beltway.
The third and hardest part of this story to dismiss is the money trail. As Marshall noted, Trump has increased his debt load and the dirty little secret is that most U.S. banks don’t loan money to Trump because they don’t trust him. And as Spoiler Alerts discussed last month, “I’m beginning to wonder if [Trump’s] motivation to win now is less about making America great again and more about avoiding yet another Trump bankruptcy.” Cozying up to Russia and Russian money would certainly be one way of bolstering his finances. And one wonders if the reason that Trump won’t release his tax returns is because it would expose Trump’s reliance on foreign money to prop up his companies.
This story is of a kind as stories that accuse Hilary Clinton of being compromised because of foreign sources of funding for the Clinton Global Initiative. Correlation does not prove causation. Just because funders might want to influence powerful people doesn’t mean that they actually do. Indeed, in some cases the ideological affinity was preexisting. The evidence suggests, for example, that Trump had been enamored with Russia for some time, probably because the plethora of plutocrats there jibe most closely with Trump’s view of how to navigate the world. It’s not like Putin needed to change Trump’s mind on anything — Trump’s headspace was already there.
All of this justifies further investigative journalism, but I’m queasy with immediately making the leap from “Russia is behind the DNC hack” to “Russia is trying to put a patsy in the White House.” But there are two conclusions I do draw from this ongoing story. The first is that I really wish those writers who have critiqued the Trump-Russia ties were as vigilant and careful when talking about whether Hillary Clinton has been compromised by foreign funding for the Clinton Global Initiative.
The second is that, even though I don’t buy this story yet, the damning thing about Donald Trump and his odd campaign is that one cannot dismiss the allegations out of hand, either. Which is probably why the Clinton campaign will be pushing this argument as hard as humanly possible.