Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election says Russia “favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump.” This is incorrect. Russia did not “favor” any candidate. Instead, Russia was motivated to undermine the election’s result, regardless of whether the winner was Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
The Mueller report admits Russian hackers and internet trolls dabbled across America’s ideological spectrum.
Russian agents goaded activists from both the Tea Party and Black Lives Matter movements. They also encouraged each other to elevate opposites like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and to attack 16 other Republicans and 5 Democrats.
…it serves Russian interests to sow division in American politics.
This would be an incoherent strategy if Russia’s goal was to help one particular presidential candidate or political party. But it makes sense if Russia’s goal was to exacerbate discord in American politics. An American president’s ability to challenge Russia is constrained by the amount of opposition he faces: let alone if that opposition is assisted by a special counsel.
So it serves Russian interests to sow division in American politics.
Yet even Hillary Clinton tried to “elevate” and “maximize” Donald Trump. Her staff was instructed to “hold fire on Trump” during the Republican primary election. They believed it was a “dream scenario” for Donald Trump to win the Republican nomination. Of course, Clinton’s strategy does not imply she secretly wanted Donald Trump to become the next U.S. president. Rather, it means Clinton, like Russia, wanted to cause chaos among her Republican political opponents.
Robert Mueller cited a previous report on Russia’s intentions by the CIA, FBI, NSA, and the Director of National Intelligence (“DNI”) from the final days of the Obama administration.
According to that DNI report, Russian interference predates and contradicts Donald Trump’s presidential campaign platform. The DNI report described Russia’s pattern of supporting left-wing causes in the United States. Russian propaganda elevates social justice movements like Occupy Wall Street and environmentalist movements like anti-fracking.
That is not Donald Trump’s constituency.
In spite of this, the DNI report judged that Russian tactics manifested a preference for Donald Trump. However, three of the four agency directors responsible for that judgment are prejudiced against Donald Trump and have lied to Congress, exhibited partisan bias, or otherwise beclowned themselves: James Clapper of the DNI, James Comey of the FBI, and John Brennan of the CIA.
Comey and Brennan judged with “high confidence” that “the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President Trump.”
Only the NSA director qualified his judgment, expressing just “moderate confidence” in this theory, indicating his opinion that the theory was “credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality [or corroboration] to warrant a higher level of confidence.”
Yet the DNI report admits these “judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact.”
Lacking such proof, Robert Mueller begged a loaded question to President Trump. Coining a variation of the “when did you stop beating your wife” trick, Mueller asked the president, “Did any person or entity inform you during the campaign that Vladimir Putin or the Russian government supported your candidacy or opposed the candidacy of Hillary Clinton?” President Trump said he didn’t recall being told such advice, but admitted “I was aware of some reports indicating that President Putin had made complimentary statements about me.”
Both the Democratic and Republican candidates and platforms presented major advantages and disadvantages for Russian interests.
Strangely, the DNI report also posited Russian President Vladimir Putin was, in part, motivated by a “grudge” against Hillary Clinton “for comments he almost certainly saw as disparaging him.”
The DNI report offers no explanation for how it can ascertain Putin’s genuinely-held personal grudges, or how such grudges translate into Russian foreign policy. Publishing this claim implies US intelligence is somehow privy to Vladimir Putin’s private motivations and policy process, whether through a mole in Putin’s inner circle or eavesdropping on Putin’s most sensitive discussions. If that’s true, one would hope US Intelligence would not compromise such sources and methods by admitting their existence in a public report.
In any case, the DNI report claims Russia assumed Donald Trump would lose the election.
“When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign then focused on undermining her expected presidency.” The Mueller report corroborates this observation. Robert Mueller found that Russian agents were told by Wikileaks that, in its opinion, “Trump has only a 25% chance of winning against Hillary.”
People do not pursue strategies they think are 75 per cent likely to fail.
To be sure, betting on an unlikely outcome is worthwhile if the prize is great enough. But neither a Clinton presidency nor a Trump presidency were prizes for Russia. Both the Democratic and Republican candidates and platforms presented major advantages and disadvantages for Russian interests.
Hillary Clinton was a familiar, patroned, compromised, and manipulable counterpart who would continue the Obama administration’s position on Iran and who promised to inhibit American energy production. Each of these factors serves Russian interests.
Yet Clinton also threatened Russia’s position in Syria, a Russian client state. Donald Trump, on the other hand, would continue the Obama administration’s partnership with Russia in Syria, but threatened Russia’s interests in Iran and in the energy sector, while otherwise being unpredictable. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump was foreseeably better for Russia than the other was.
Indeed, the Mueller report found the Russian government was so unfamiliar with Donald Trump that it couldn’t even liaise with him after he won the election. “Putin indicated that he did not know with whom formally to speak and generally did not know the people around the President-Elect.”
Contrast that with Putin’s ties to Hillary Clinton, with whom the Russian government cultivated a relationship for nearly 25 years. Putin can reach Secretary Clinton through any of several backchannels: the Clinton Foundation, the Obama administration, or even the unsecured private emails through which Secretary Clinton conducted classified official business.
Imagine two Russian spies pitching Vladimir Putin on the idea of interfering in the U.S. election.
One pitches a win/lose strategy to help elect Donald Trump, who isn’t necessarily better for Russia and who is, in any case, unlikely to win the election. The other spy pitches a win-win strategy to make the election as contentious as possible, empowering domestic political opposition regardless of which candidate wins the election.
In 2016, the smart approach for Vladimir Putin would have been to choose the win-win strategy. And in 2019 we know how it played out. Russia diminished Hillary Clinton, most dramatically by feeding emails to Wikileaks which Russian agents had stolen from the Democratic National Committee. Those emails corroborated the Clinton campaign’s and the Democratic party’s untrustworthiness on multiple fronts – yet they also contained no bombshells compared to Hillary Clinton’s known corruption of State Department emails or compared to the Democratic party’s ineffective strategy in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
President Trump’s policies toward Russia have been more adversarial than those of any U.S. president this century.
Ergo, Donald Trump won the election. But President Trump’s policies toward Russia have been more adversarial than those of any U.S. president this century. Any Russian analyst who predicted otherwise is eating crow. Thus, it’s smart for Russia to have hedged against this possibility by seeding the conspiracy theory of “Russian collusion,” which delegitimizes President Trump’s administration in 2019 after first embarrassing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in 2016.
Consider also the “salacious and unverified” opposition research dossier written by a British spy and paid-for by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The FBI exploited this dossier to spy on Americans and, ultimately, to consume the first two years of President Trump’s administration. But the dossier purports to rely on Russian sources.
If such gossip-sourcing was an element in Russia’s election-interference strategy, then that strategy will ultimately have harmed President Trump far more than it harmed candidate Clinton.
Interference in the 2016 election paid great dividends to Russia. Not because such interference caused Donald Trump to be president, but rather because such interference caused the media, the Department of Justice, Congress, and American politicians to focus more attention on countering their own president than on countering Russia.