Making sense of the intelligence agencies’ report on Russia and the election

Vladimir Putin. Photo (cc) by xx.
Vladimir Putin. 2015 photo via Kremlin.ru.

Like all of us, I am trying to make sense of the intelligence agencies’ report in which they found that the Russian government, going right up to the Shirtless Horseman himself, interfered in the 2016 election on Donald Trump’s behalf.

I have read all of it. And it is hard to overlook the lack of any actual evidence, which is apparently laid out in classified versions of the report. As a result, a number of observers are erecting “caution” signs to guard against anyone drawing a definitive conclusion. Scott Shane writes in The New York Times:

What is missing from the public report is what many Americans most eagerly anticipated: hard evidence to back up the agencies’ claims that the Russian government engineered the election attack. That is a significant omission: Mr. Trump has been expressing skepticism for months that Russia was to blame, variously wondering whether it might have been China, or a 400-pound guy, or a guy from New Jersey.

On Twitter, too, I’m seeing skepticism from the right and, of course, from the ubiquitous Glenn Greenwald, who’s been going off on it for hours. Here’s one example:

But I think focusing on the lack of evidence overlooks the central reality: Reams of evidence were put before us over the course of many months during the presidential campaign. Consider what we know for a fact:

  • Emails were stolen from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
  • Those emails landed at WikiLeaks, whose leader, Julian Assange, is clearly (and at the very least) a Russian ally.
  • WikiLeaks published multiple emails that were embarrassing to the Clinton campaign and none that reflected badly on Trump.

So yes, in one sense the intelligence agencies offered no evidence for their assertions. But in another, more important sense, we’ve already seen the evidence. The main role of the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA was to tell us that they agree, that we’re not crazy, and what we all saw play out was exactly what it appeared to be.

Did Russian interference cost Clinton the election? As Sam Wang has written at the Princeton Election Consortium, FBI Director James Comey’s horrendously misguided last-minute decision to reopen the investigation into Clinton’s private email server almost certainly put Trump over the top. Wang writes:

Opinion swung toward Trump by 4 percentage points, and about half of this was a lasting change. This was larger than the victory margin in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin. Many factors went into this year’s Presidental race, but on the home stretch, Comey’s letter appears to have been a critical factor in the home stretch.

Russian interference was less of a factor than Comey’s letter. But it nevertheless kept the media’s and the public’s attention on Clinton and emails, even though questions about her server and hacking by the Russians had nothing to do with each other. We can’t know for sure, but my sense is that Comey’s actions by themselves elected Trump, and that Russian subterfuge added to the damage.

What happens now? If it could somehow be shown that Trump himself had colluded with the Russians, he might face impeachment and even prosecution on espionage charges. The word treason tends to get thrown around way too lightly, but a Trump-Putin alliance to steal the election might very well qualify.

Such actions would require not just persuasive evidence that Trump was involved but also principled members of the Republican Congress and of Trump’s Justice Department. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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