You might not think that a bureaucratic report with the snooze-inducing title “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections” would turn out to be a can’t-put- it-down must read, but that’s what it is for Washington and a lot of the rest of the nation.
I refer, of course, to the report produced collectively by The Central Intelligence Agency, The Federal Bureau of Investigation, and The National Security Agency, which concludes that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign to influence the US presidential election.
One goal was to help Mr. Trump win.
The Russian efforts reportedly included hacking into Democratic National Committee emails and transmitting them, directly or indirectly, to WikiLeaks and its head Julian Assange, who then published them to the world. Some of those emails turned were quite damaging to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.
The intelligence community’s report has stimulated all sorts of reactions in political circles. Most notably, both before and after the declassified version had been released to the public, President-elect Trump fired off tweets that seemed to dismiss and even mock the conclusion that Russia had worked to help him win.
However, on last Sunday’s “Fox News Sunday,” Reince Priebus, the incoming Chief of Staff in Trump’s White House, said he “thinks” Mr. Trump “accepts the findings” of the intelligence report. Stay tuned for the next tweet.
For the average citizen—those of us who do not bear any direct responsibility for safeguarding US cyber-security—probably the most interesting question raised by the entire Russian hacking issue is, did the hacking affect the outcome of the 2016 election?
The intelligence community’s report states explicitly that they do not address that question, and it also explains why: “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.”
This question—did Russian hacking affect the outcome?—is not quite as simple as it looks. We ought to take pains to distinguish between two different questions that might otherwise be jumbled together.
One question is: did the Russian hacking help Trump’s campaign?
The other question is: was the Russian hacking decisive in Trump’s victory, or, put another way, would Trump have lost without Russian hacking?
Both of these questions involve counter-factual conditionals of enormous complexity. They ask, in effect, what would have happened had the Russians done nothing?
There is no laboratory in which we can run the 2016 election over again, leaving out the Russian hacking, and then observe the results. (This is, no doubt, a second reason the intelligence report ducks this issue.) So, when we address these questions, a profound sense of modesty is the only proper attitude.
Some will say that it is obvious that Russian activities helped Trump at least to some degree, because the leaked emails embarrassed the Clinton campaign. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asked and answered her own question: “Did it affect the Clinton campaign? Of course it did.” John Podesta, whose own personal email account was hacked and who served as chairman of the Clinton campaign, said that the election results were “distorted” by Russian interference.
Mr. Trump disagrees. As he uses the phrase, the Russians could have “affected the election results” only if they tampered with electronic voting machines. I don’t believe many others would understand that phrase in those very narrow terms, but Mr. Trump is convinced that, because the Russians didn’t hack into voting machines, they had no effect on the results.
Even if we assume the hacking had some impact on the results, we immediately come to the Mt. Everest of relevant questions: did Russian hacking have a decisive impact on the results?
Kellyanne Conway, who will be White House counselor in the incoming administration, is certain that the answer is “no.”
On last Sunday’s “State of the Union” on CNN, she said this about the Clinton campaign and Russian hacking: “We didn’t need WikiLeaks to convince the American people that they didn’t like her, didn’t trust her, didn’t find her to be honest… The alleged attacks, alleged aspirations to interfere with our democracy failed.”
If the hackers failed in their aspiration to interfere, then Trump’s victory obviously was not a product of their hacking.
Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffAll eyes on Garland after Bannon contempt vote House votes to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Altria - Manchin heatedly dismisses rumors of leaving Democratic Party MORE (D-Calif.), who serves as the ranking Democratic member on the House Intelligence Committee, has said “The daily dumping of damaging material to Secretary Clinton was enormously consequential in terms of her campaign. It was enormously beneficial to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE. To ignore that, or to say it didn’t happen, is quite inaccurate. All of this was of course enabled by the Russian cyber operations.”
Saying the hacks were “enormously beneficial to Donald Trump” is not exactly the same as saying that he could not have won without them, but it’s pretty darn close.
The truth is that neither Ms. Conway nor Rep. Schiff, nor anyone else in this whole great big world, knows whether Mr. Trump would have won if there had been no Russian influence campaign.
Democrats and Republicans shouldn’t be fighting each other over this issue. In this instance, our common enemy clearly is Russia.
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the New York state bar. He currently resides in Cary, North Carolina, and has published pieces on the Social Science Research Network and in The Times of Israel.
The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.