The controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, suspicions of the Trump campaign’s involvement in that interference, and concerns about illegitimate and illegal “deep state” attacks on the Trump administration has become so complicated and saturated with twists and turns as to be almost impossible to follow. Herewith is a modest effort to provide context, assess where we are, and offer a few tentative conclusions — an explainer, if you will:
First, and most importantly, did Russia actually “hack” the 2016 presidential election?
Well, if the Russians didn’t “hack” the election, what did they do?
They sowed confusion and chaos, and there’s strong evidence (according to multiple intelligence agencies) that they ultimately sought to help Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton. Their most infamous move was the theft of e-mails from the Democratic National Committee, which were likely passed to WikiLeaks before becoming the basis of a slow drip of damaging information about Clinton and the Democratic party released into the news cycle.
Did the Russians actually help Trump win the election?
We can never really know, and that’s one of the things that make this controversy so toxic. More than 130 million Americans voted in the 2016 election, but the outcome turned on around 80,000 votes in three key states. And the race itself was one of the most scandal-ridden in modern history, conducted by two of the most unpopular major-party nominees ever. Given these realities, any number of factors could have been decisive.
WikiLeaks revelations, “fake news,” and other disruption operations often got lost in a tidal wave of “organic” bad news for the candidates, including Clinton’s self-inflicted e-mail scandal. Even with Russia likely putting its thumb on the scales for Trump, no one can legitimately claim that Clinton received worse or less favorable media coverage than her opponent. He was subject to not just relentless partisan attacks but also to overwhelmingly negative media coverage, much of it due to his own endless gaffes and scandals.
The bottom line? In an election where any number of factors could have influenced the outcome, we’ll never know if Russia put Trump over the top.
It’s horrible that the Russians interfered, but that has nothing to do with the Trump campaign, right?
Whether Trump associates colluded or cooperated with Russian intelligence is the most important remaining question of the entire controversy. To understand why the concern is more than just a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory, some additional context is needed.
During much of 2016, two things were happening at the same time.
First, Trump had hired Paul Manafort as campaign chair and was receiving campaign advice from Carter Page. Manafort and Page in particular had longstanding business ties to Vladimir Putin’s allies. Manafort had allegedly received millions of dollars in payments from Putin allies in Ukraine and had in the past actively worked to advance Putin’s interests. General Michael Flynn, a prominent campaign surrogate who later became Trump’s first national-security adviser, also had business ties to Russian firms and to RT, the Kremlin-owned propaganda network. And Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone, who remained an informal adviser to the campaign even after leaving a formal role during the primaries, had still-unclear relationships with the Russians as well. The candidate’s reliance on these men during the campaign, combined with his odd and persistent praise for Putin, raised serious concerns of pro-Russia bias and improper Russian ties. Indeed Trump himself acted late in the race to remove Manafort and Page from his campaign team, allowing Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway to step in and help steer him to an upset win.
Second, at the same time that the media was investigating Manafort’s ties to Putin allies, rumors were rocketing around Washington that Trump officials were working closely with Russian intelligence and that Trump himself had been “compromised” by the Russian government. In other words, people were claiming that the Russian government possessed information about Trump that Trump would not want made public, and thus that the Kremlin could exert undue influence on his presidency. These rumors grew so prevalent that intelligence officials reportedly briefed both Obama and Trump about them.
It turns out that many (if not most) of those rumors were based on a “dossier” compiled by a former British intelligence officer that contained numerous spectacular, lurid (and completely unverified) claims about Trump and Trump’s associates. Multiple news organizations had labored for weeks and months to attempt to verify its assertions and had been unable to substantiate any material allegation. Nevertheless, BuzzFeed chose to release the entire, unverified document into the public square after the election, a decision that has tainted the debate ever since.
That sounds pretty thin and circumstantial, so why is my Twitter timeline lit up with lefties who still think Trump will be impeached?
Well, it turns out that even though the BuzzFeed dossier is unverified, the Trump administration has been caught in lie after lie about its contacts with Russia. Trump and his allies have repeatedly said that no one from his campaign team was in contact with Russian officials during the campaign; anonymous intelligence officials have claimed otherwise, and they supposedly have “intercepts” that prove it. Moreover, Trump administration officials have also misled the public about their contacts with Russians after the election but before Trump took office.
To be more specific, General Flynn apparently lied to Vice President Pence about his contacts with Russia, and it cost him his job. Attorney General Jeff Sessions misled the Senate about his contacts with Russia, and it caused him to recuse himself from the FBI’s Russia investigation. For those keeping score, then, contacts with Russia have cost Trump a campaign chair (Manafort), a foreign-policy adviser (Page), and a national security adviser (Flynn), while also sidelining the attorney general from the FBI’s investigation.
Put all that — really only a partial summary of the Trump team’s Russian contacts — together and you can see why the FBI is currently investigating not just Russian efforts to influence the presidential election but also contacts between Trump’s team and Russian officials.
Wait a minute, you make it sound like Trump or Trump’s team may have done something wrong. I heard that what’s really happening is that the “deep state” is launching a “soft coup” against the duly-elected president. Isn’t that the real scandal?
Well, let’s put it this way: The flood of anonymous and almost certainly illegal leaks that has damaged Trump certainly represents a scandal. It remains to be seen whether it’s the scandal. But first, let’s define our terms. The “deep state” refers to a supposed cabal of hostile, progressive career government employees who are deeply embedded in the intelligence and national-security establishments and eager to disregard the law if it means hurting the White House. “Soft coup” is the hyperbolic term for a supposed effort to literally overthrow the government of the United States, tossing Trump from office.
While people can certainly quibble with the overwrought use of these terms, it does appear that there are a number of government officials who are eager to talk to the press and leak confidential or classified communications. Each time the Trump administration or its allies make a controversial contention, these sources quickly talk to reporters, and within hours (sometimes minutes) tweets and news reports materialize to contradict or contest the administration’s claims.
No one is covering themselves with glory here. The Trump team has trouble telling the truth. Intelligence officials can’t or won’t keep secrets that they’re bound by law to keep. So far, the leaking is working to undermine confidence in the Trump administration and in the intelligence establishment.
I keep hearing about wiretaps, surveillance, and “unmasking.” Who’s bugging whom?
Earlier this month, Trump tweeted a claim that Obama had essentially wiretapped Trump Tower — that the outgoing administration had placed the incoming administration under direct and unlawful surveillance. At this point, there’s no evidence that what Trump said was true. The FBI has denied it — Director James Comey pointed out that president Obama didn’t have the power to order a wiretap — the Obama administration has denied it, and not even partisan Republican members of the House and Senate intelligence committees claim it’s true.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean there was no government surveillance of the Trump administration. Instead, what basically everyone acknowledges is that the American intelligence community monitors foreign powers, and if Americans communicate with certain foreign officials, then those communications are recorded or logged or monitored solely as a matter of course. This is sometimes referred to as “incidental collection.” Normally, the identities of the Americans whose communications were intercepted are concealed to protect their privacy and prevent inadvertent and unjustified suspicion from being cast upon innocent activities. Intelligence officials, however, have a degree of discretion to “unmask” or identify those Americans within the intelligence agency, though not necessarily publicly, if there is concern that they were engaged in improper or illegal activity.
Obviously, this power can be abused, as can the power to monitor foreign officials. For example, an intelligence agency could choose to monitor specific foreign individuals as a pretext for getting at Americans who are known to communicate with them frequently. Or intelligence officials could simply choose to “unmask” individuals for the purpose of embarrassing them or creating exactly the kind of suspicion that is right now rampant in Washington.
Isn’t that exactly what’s happening? I’ve heard that intelligence officials spread allegations against Trump’s team throughout the government. Isn’t that clearly wrong?
It depends on what’s being spread, how it’s being spread, and why. In early March, the New York Times reported that outgoing Obama administration officials had scattered information about Russian interference in the election throughout the government, so that the incoming Trump administration would have trouble squashing the investigation. Later reports indicated that Obama officials even went so far as to provide the numbers of specific documents to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee so that those documents wouldn’t be destroyed.
If these officials were disseminating information about Russian actions and they were following all the laws protecting classified information, there was nothing inherently wrong with there efforts to preserve evidence — especially given the understandable belief that the Trump administration would be less than diligent in pursuing the investigation. If that evidence includes documents or intercepts indicating collusion or cooperation with Russian actions on the part of Trump-campaign officials, then the action becomes even more understandable and justifiable.
If, however, the intelligence community was concerned more with embarrassing Trump and destroying key members of his administration, then their actions start to seem much more sinister. Was the Obama administration really preserving evidence, or was it spreading rumor and innuendo? It’s entirely possible that it was doing both, with some officials preserving evidence in good faith while others spread rumor and innuendo (including by “unmasking” innocent men or women). At this point, we simply don’t know.
Why is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee under fire? Isn’t Devin Nunes concerned with unmasking and abusive surveillance?
Yes, Nunes is concerned with unmasking. Yes, he’s concerned that hostile members of the intelligence community are breaking the law to undermine the Trump administration. At the same time, however, he’s not a Trump-administration official. He’s the chairman of a House committee that is supposed to provide oversight of the Trump administration. Given that reality, the following chain of events is deeply problematic:
Earlier this month, Nunes was called to the White House grounds (anonymous leaks indicate that his meeting there was in some way facilitated by senior Trump-administration lawyers and national-security aides) to view documents that indicated that Trump administration officials may have been wrongly unmasked in reports of communications with foreign officials. (In other words, these officials were caught up in “incidental collection,” and their identity was wrongly exposed in a manner that Nunes found troubling.)
It was certainly unusual for Nunes to go alone to the White House to view this information, and what followed was even more so: He held a press conference on White House grounds and claimed to have “briefed” the White House on information he apparently got from the White House. At the same time, he refused to share the information with other members of his committee or to identify his source(s). Compounding the problem, when the press discovered his first, secret White House meeting, he appeared to mislead reporters, creating the impression that White House aides knew nothing about it.
In the final analysis, Nunes acted more like a Trump aide or lawyer than like the chair of a House committee. It looks as if the Trump administration used him to provide a form of external validation of Trump’s claims of improper surveillance — and that’s not his role.
I heard that Michael Flynn is willing to testify to the FBI and to the congressional intelligence committees in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Won’t that blow this whole thing open?
Maybe. Maybe not. On TV or in movies, only guilty people with lots of valuable information seek immunity. In the real world, scared, innocent people sometimes seek immunity just as guilty people do, and the information that emerges on the record as a result is not always useful. We simply don’t know what Flynn knows, and it’s unwise to read too much into his immunity request, which, in any case, was denied by the Senate Intelligence Committee as “wildly preliminary.”
Wait a minute, after more than 2,300 words, are you saying that we know Russia tried to interfere with the election, but we don’t know if Trump officials helped or colluded in any way, if Trump himself was involved in any way, if Obama officials have improperly unmasked or surveilled Trump’s team, or who any unlawful leakers were? Is this the least-helpful Q & A ever written?
The answer to all these questions except the last (I hope!) is “yes.” We don’t know the most important facts of the case, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t know anything important. It’s important and troubling to know that members of the intelligence community are seemingly leaking with impunity to damage Trump. It’s important and troubling to know that Trump has lost key aides because of their Russia ties, and that Trump and his team continue struggling to tell the truth about their Russian contacts. And it’s important and troubling to know that huge swaths of the American political establishment are being exposed as purely partisan.
The FBI is continuing its investigation, and so are the House and Senate intelligence committees (though Nunes’s House committee is in a state of chaos). Every major media publication is feverishly chasing the various threads of the story. It’s entirely possible that we’re not at the beginning of the end of this scandal, but rather at the end of the beginning. It’s also entirely possible that the end, when it comes, will leave political casualties on all sides, from bureaucrats who may face prosecution for unlawful leaks to public figures who may face ruin for unlawful or inappropriate foreign contacts.
One thing is clear: The Russian government has run one of the most cost-effective and disruptive espionage operations in history. Through a few simple hacks of the DNC, some basic online trolling, and garden-variety propaganda spread by modern means, the Kremlin has turned a superpower’s politics upside down. Its chief geopolitical rival is divided, with leaders obviously more furious at each other than at the foreign power who created the crisis. Russia may well face a day of reckoning for its attack on our democracy, but for now it has won, and the magnitude of its victory increases with each petty and partisan turn in Washington’s most consequential drama.
— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.