Although there is still a great deal we don’t know and must find out, the Russian hacking of the 2016 American election must now be regarded as a seminal event in the history of American democracy and a paradigmatic warning sign of the danger that all modern democracies face in the age of cyberwarfare. There is no pure analogy for what has happened, since no foreign power has ever intervened to try to shape an American election and subvert the democratic process with this kind of sophistication and potency. However, like the 9/11 attacks, and in a very different way the Watergate scandal, this is a story that requires and will hopefully receive relentless investigative reporting, thorough and bipartisan Congressional fact-finding, and profound reflection on the vulnerabilities it exposes in America’s democracy. And like 9/11, the Russian cyberattack on American democracy has urgent implications for America’s democratic allies.
Here is what we know—and what we need to find out.
It is now beyond dispute (and the consensus view of 17 American intelligence agencies) that the Russian state launched a sophisticated effort more than a year ago to intervene in the 2016 elections in the United States. Operatives of Russian military intelligence hacked into the computers of the Democratic National Committee in 2015, captured vast troves of information, and released information they thought could be embarrassing, divisive, or controversial through their willing instrument, WikiLeaks. We now also know through the reporting of The New York Times that the Russians, around March or April of 2016, hacked into the computers of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and stole “thousands of pages of documents,” which they then leaked to local reporters and bloggers “in nearly a dozen House races” in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina. It speaks to the sophistication of the assault that these were all races in competitive districts. And just for good measure—intimidation or spite—the hackers also released the home addresses, cellphone numbers, and personal email addresses of Democratic members of the House, compromising their personal security.
What was the motive for the Russian intervention? Since the operation began in 2015, when Donald Trump was a long shot to win the Republican nomination (not to mention the presidency), it probably was initiated as an effort to weaken and discredit a presumed Hillary Clinton presidency and to sow confusion and doubt about American democracy. But as Trump stormed through the primaries to win the Republican nomination, the operation appears to have morphed into an effort to help Donald Trump win the presidency, according to leaks purporting to reveal the unanimous opinion of U.S. intelligence agencies, including the FBI.
Lending credence to this interpretation are the following facts. First, Russian President Vladimir Putin harbors a strong sense of antipathy to Hillary Clinton as a result of the concerns she publicly raised about fraud in the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections and the sympathy she expressed for large-scale popular protests against that fraud. Second, Putin has chafed under the biting sanctions the Obama administration has imposed on Russia in the wake of its invasion and annexation of Crimea, and urgently wants to get those sanctions removed. As president, Hillary Clinton would have sustained and probably intensified those sanctions. Third, Trump has repeatedly spoken admiringly of Putin, has signaled his intention to seek warm relations with Russia, and could cancel the sanctions “with the stroke of a pen,” per CNN, even though the EU has just extended them for another six months. Fourth, although the Russians also sought to break into the Republican National Committee computers, their failure to do so was described by The Wall Street Journal as “a much less aggressive and much less persistent effort.” The intelligence that’s been made public indicates Democrats faced a much more formidable online assault, and whatever Russian intelligence may have gathered from Republican operations was never leaked in an effort to inflict political damage.
On purely political grounds, one can understand the unwillingness of the president-elect to give credence to the allegations of Russians intervention, and particularly the attribution of Russian intent. For they suggest that 1) Russia’s cyber campaign could have made the difference in his narrow margin of victory (less than 80,000 votes total) in the three key battleground states that gave him his electoral college victory; and 2) if it did make the difference, Trump will now be president of the United States because the president of Russia—one of the most corrupt authoritarian rulers in the world—successfully intervened on his behalf. But now that his election victory has been confirmed by the Electoral College, President-elect Trump has a moral and political obligation to help Congress determine the full extent of the Russian attack and to defend against ongoing and future ones by Russia, China, and other adversaries.
It is important to acknowledge that Donald Trump is legally and constitutionally president. Investigations are not an effort to undermine Trump’s presidential legitimacy, but to understand and then respond to a far-reaching and grave assault on America’s democratic process. Whatever opposition or outrage Democrats and other Trump critics may feel over his policy directions—on energy, climate change, the minimum wage, taxation, or whatever—is an issue entirely separate from the defense of democratic norms and institutions.
The president-elect could enhance confidence in his presidency by endorsing the call of Senators McCain, Graham, Schumer, and Reed for a bipartisan select committee of Congress to undertake a “comprehensive investigation of Russian interference” and develop “comprehensive recommendations and, as necessary, new legislation to modernize our nation’s laws, governmental organization, and related practices to meet this challenge.” But should Trump continue to show cavalier disinterest in learning the facts of Russia’s cyberattacks, and then a readiness to lift sanctions on Russia even in the face of this and similar mounting efforts against European democracies, disturbing questions will be accentuated.
Beyond determining and then publicly reporting what Russia did to hack the 2016 election campaign, how and why it did it, and how the United States can prevent similar or worse sabotage in the future, the nature of the contacts between any elements of the Trump family or organization and the Russian state is also a question for investigation. In September, the journalist Michael Isikoff reported that U.S. intelligence officials were seeking to assess the nature of meetings this past summer in Moscow between Carter Page, whom Trump identified in March as one of five people he turns to for foreign-policy advice, and “senior Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin.” Page, who worked in Russia as an investment banker during the previous decade and now has extensive business ties there, gave a speech this past summer criticizing the U.S. and other Western democracies for a “hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change” in Russia. He reportedly resigned in September as a Trump campaign advisor, denying that he had privately communicated with top Russian officials, but he was back in Moscow earlier this month.
Other questions concern the extent of commercial and financial ties between Trump and Russian interests. What is the nature of any interactions between his family members or advisors, and officials or business allies of the Putin regime? What is the nature of the ties he himself forged during his 2013 visit to Moscow for the staging of his Miss Universe pageant?
Trump may well be clear of dangerous foreign entanglements, but there are enough questions and unknowns to warrant full investigation—not to mention full disclosure by Trump, including his tax returns. The American people deserve to know at least this much about a leader who is now preparing to deal with the most pressing challenge confronting the security of the United States and its European allies: a resurgent authoritarian Russia that is assaulting the very foundations of Western democracies.