Let’s get this out of the way first and foremost: While there is plenty of evidence that Russia meddled in the 2016 election — for the sake of sowing doubt and uncertainty, undermining the then-likely future president (Hillary), and/or trying to help elect Trump — there is yet zero evidence that Russian intelligence operation actually influenced the outcome. There is as yet zero evidence that the election itself was illegitimate. In fact, to the contrary, Russian meddling was disclosed, discussed, and debated during the campaign. We did not yet know Russian intent (and still don’t), but Russian actions were widely known. Unless we gain compelling evidence to the contrary, there is nothing illegitimate about Trump’s win.
But that doesn’t mean that Putin hasn’t gained a comprehensive operational victory. Through years of effort and exploitation of profound American divisions and weaknesses, he’s accomplished the following:
1. He undermined confidence in the Democratic presidential nominee, with a big assist from Hillary herself. Yes, the “reset” was a disaster. Yes, her foreign policy failed. But the problems with Clinton went beyond simple incompetence. Never forget this story, from the New York Times, involving the sale of 20 percent of our uranium assets to a Russian-controlled corporation:
Beyond mines in Kazakhstan that are among the most lucrative in the world, the sale gave the Russians control of one-fifth of all uranium production capacity in the United States. Since uranium is considered a strategic asset, with implications for national security, the deal had to be approved by a committee composed of representatives from a number of United States government agencies. Among the agencies that eventually signed off was the State Department, then headed by Mr. Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
As the Russians gradually assumed control of Uranium One in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013, Canadian records show, a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation. Uranium One’s chairman used his family foundation to make four donations totaling $2.35 million. Those contributions were not publicly disclosed by the Clintons, despite an agreement Mrs. Clinton had struck with the Obama White House to publicly identify all donors. Other people with ties to the company made donations as well.
And shortly after the Russians announced their intention to acquire a majority stake in Uranium One, Mr. Clinton received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock.
Suprise, surprise — the State Department approved the deal. Clinton opportunism and greed strikes again.
2. He undermined confidence in the Republican presidential nominee, with a big assist from Trump himself. At the same time that Republican partisans were expressing alarm at justifiable Hillary outrages — like the uranium sale above and her utterly reckless handling of classified information — all too many Republicans were turning a blind eye to truly disturbing developments within and without the Trump campaign. Russian Twitter trolls piled on Trump critics and artificially created pro-Trump trends (read Louise Mensch’s extraordinary pre-election Heat Street story to see how.) In October it was widely-reported (again, this is pre-election) that Russia was behind the Wikileaks hacks and the subsequent drip, drip of unflattering information into the public realm. A complete list of Russian actions that favored Trump will come at a later time, but their pro-Trump slant was open and obvious.
Moreover, the Trump campaign did nothing to dissuade the belief that it was too close to Putin. Trump repeatedly praised Putin, encouraged Russia to hack more emails, absurdly (and without evidence) tried to cast doubt on claims of Russian meddling, and for a time hired a man to run his campaign, Paul Manafort, who may have received millions of dollars in off-books cash transactions with a pro-Russia political party:
Handwritten ledgers show $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Mr. Manafort from Mr. Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party from 2007 to 2012, according to Ukraine’s newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Investigators assert that the disbursements were part of an illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials.
Manafort later left the campaign, and there are now reports that the FBI is conducting a “preliminary inquiry” into his foreign business dealings.
3. He exposed legions of commentators and politicians as pure partisan hacks. The Democratic establishment praised Obama’s sick burn of Mitt Romney when he dismissed Romney’s warnings about Russia and declared in a 2012 presidential debate that the “1980s are calling; they want their foreign policy back.” But it turns out that Romney was right, Russia is our primary geopolitical rival, and it has run one of the more successful disinformation operations I’ve ever seen — on Obama’s watch and right under Obama’s nose.
At the same time, Trump operatives and their trained seals in “conservative” media are so busy basking in the glow of victory that they’re neglecting the fact that if the shoe was on the other foot — if similar evidence of pro-Hillary Russian interference was present in the aftermath of a Hillary victory — they’d be howling at the top of their own partisan lungs. They would call the election illegitimate. They would be calling Hillary a Manchurian Candidate. They would be screaming not just for an independent investigation but for electors to switch their votes.
4. He actually did undermine American faith in the American government. Right now there are millions upon millions of Americans who believe — to the bottom of their heart — that the 2016 election was fundamentally illegitimate. Putin saw an America more divided and distrustful than any time in modern history, and he pushed precisely on the right pressure point. Russian hacks and Twitter bots have to represent one the most cost-effective intelligence expenditures in modern memory. With remarkably little effort, he cast an election in doubt and exacerbated partisan political divisions.
At this point there has to be an investigation of Russian influence on the 2016 election — and of Russian efforts to influence American politics and discourse more broadly. It has to be bipartisan at least and independent at best. And if it confirms what virtually every intelligence agency contends — that Russia at the very least was attempting to act as a disruptive force — then there has to be a decisive American response. Even in the best of circumstances Russian interference would be intolerable. But we’re far from the best circumstances. America is polarized and awash in partisan outrage. Putin has made it worse.