No matter how the White House tries to spin the testimony of FBI director James Comey to the House Intelligence Committee on Monday, the damage can’t be denied. Though it merely confirmed what everyone already knew, Comey’s statement that an investigation into possible collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign has been going on since last summer provides ammunition for the president’s critics. Even more than Comey’s willingness to add his voice to those officials who have dismissed the president’s foolish tweets about the alleged wiretapping of Trump Tower, the FBI inquiry gives a measure of credence to the conspiracy theories about Russia that liberals have been using to undermine the president.
The probe may find absolutely nothing that justifies the suspicions. Indeed, given that the government sources that leaked the first information about surveillance of Trump-campaign figures to the New York Times admitted they had found no evidence to back up the charge of collusion, it is entirely likely that the FBI effort will eventually come up empty. But the existence of the probe is enough to cast a shadow over a presidency that is already floundering because of the president’s self-inflicted wounds and the chaos engendered by the palace intrigue that has engulfed the White House.
But despite the seriousness of the administration’s predicament, it is still worthwhile pointing out that one key element of the Democratic narrative about Trump and Russia is still utter nonsense. The notion that Russian efforts succeeded in stealing the presidential election from Hillary Clinton has no basis in fact.
As both Comey and Admiral Michael Rogers of the National Security Agency affirmed, there is no doubt that the Russians undertook activities designed to undermine faith in American democracy. It is equally true that the Putin regime preferred to see Trump rather than Clinton elected president of the United States. But the notion that these dots must somehow connect in a plot between Trump and Putin to steal the election requires faith in the sort of discredited claims (such as the Steele dossier) and conspiracy theories that Democrats laughed at when they were put forward by the far Right against Obama.
Yet Democrats are making progress toward achieving a more realistic goal: casting doubt on the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency by claiming, as almost all Democratic members asserted during the Comey hearing, that it was Putin’s intervention that put him over the top.
As with the collusion scenarios, there is a certain superficial logic to that assertion. Since Trump won a majority of Electoral College votes by virtue of some close victories in swing states — a mere 80,000 votes flipped from Trump to Clinton in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin would have handed her the presidency — it’s possible to claim that any one of a number of factors proved decisive. But even if we concede that to be true, the idea that the Russians were one such factor requires not merely a leap of imagination but a case of amnesia about events that took place only a few months ago.
When Democrats speak of Russian intervention working to defeat Clinton, they are referring to only one thing: the WikiLeaks documents dump. If the Russians did try to hack into the vote counts or to actively sabotage Democratic campaign work, including the Clinton camp’s sophisticated get-out-the-vote and micro-targeting efforts, they failed. But they were able to purloin the e-mails of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton-campaign chairman John Podesta.
The release of those e-mails was embarrassing, but Democrats forget that there was very little in any of them that was directly tied to Clinton. We learned that DNC chairwoman Representative Debbie Wasserman Shultz did her best to help Clinton against the Bernie Sanders insurgency, a revelation that cost the Florida congresswoman her job. We also found out a lot about what Podesta thought about the rest of the Clinton-campaign staff, which, no doubt, created a lot of ill feeling among the cast of thousands working at Hillary’s lavish Brooklyn headquarters. But does anyone seriously believe this changed any votes in November? Were the white working-class voters of the Rust Belt states who unexpectedly tipped the election to Trump so disillusioned by anything Podesta or Wasserman Schultz did that they abandoned the Democrats? No.
If voters didn’t trust Clinton, it was not because of anything WikiLeaks revealed but was rather the result of the Democrat’s unwillingness to tell the truth.
The WikiLeaks documents that did impact Clinton directly were those that revealed the transcripts of some of her Goldman Sachs speeches. One such document made it clear that the Democratic candidate was friendlier to Wall Street than she claimed to be when competing with Sanders for liberal votes in the primaries. But even taking that into account, does anyone in the Clinton camp really think voters didn’t already know that their candidate had spent many years cultivating her Wall Street donors?
If voters didn’t trust Clinton, it was not because of anything WikiLeaks revealed but was rather the result of the Democrat’s unwillingness to tell the truth — or even keep her story straight — about her e-mail scandal or claim that the terror attack on the American consulate in Benghazi was the work of angry film critics. It was not WikiLeaks that gave her a reputation for mendacity but rather the revelations in Peter Schweizer’s Clinton Cash and subsequent follow-ups by the New York Times and Washington Post about the conflicts of interest involving Clinton Foundation donors and her work at the State Department.
More importantly, it must also be remembered that the stories about WikiLeaks document dumps were repeatedly overshadowed by Trump’s scandals. In particular, the publication of Podesta’s e-mails were almost immediately overshadowed by the discovery days later of the Entertainment Tonight video in which Trump was heard to boast of behavior that amounted to sexual assault. Nothing that WikiLeaks put out got a fraction of the coverage during the campaign as that video did. The same can be said for the way Trump’s insult of a Gold Star family knocked earlier WikiLeaks dumps out of the news.
Why did Clinton lose Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin when all three states were assumed to be in her column? Perhaps her failure to prioritize campaign visits in these states was decisive? Or maybe it was just her failure to put forward a coherent economic message? Or perhaps the problem was the Democrats’ obsession with identity politics alienated part of their old working-class base. Then there is the fact that Clinton was a terrible candidate. And, though liberals and even many conservatives are loath to admit it, Trump’s ability to energize his base in a way more-qualified Republicans had failed to do in the previous two presidential cycles was a factor that almost all pundits underestimated.
But of all the possible factors, the notion that Russian hacking of John Podesta’s e-mails was the real reason for Trump’s astonishing victory requires a suspension of disbelief that goes beyond blind partisanship.
Whatever the Russians did or didn’t do, Hillary Clinton lost and Donald Trump won the 2016 election on their own. Congress and the FBI do well to investigate what the Russians were up to last year. But claims that they stole the election are the laments of sore losers, not the product of rational analysis.
— Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review Online.