The Muscovite Candidate?

Democrats allege that Russian hackers stole and leaked their emails in order to aid Donald Trump. Just because they’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

Sometimes a conspiracy theory can be true. Or, to put it another way, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

Take the burgeoning email leaks scandal that hit the Democratic National Committee on Friday. A searchable cache of 20,000 emails showed up on WikiLeaks. The dump arrived about five weeks after the DNC announced it had been hacked. (Disclosure: I make a cameo in the cache when a staffer suggests my inventory of which Republicans are and aren’t backing Donald Trump “should be helpful.” And frankly, I agree it is. Please read it!) The dump has already claimed a major victim, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who announced on Sunday that she would step down after the party convention this week. Her already-minor role in the convention seems likely to shrink still further.

What’s in the emails? Aaron Blake has a good roundup at The Washington Post, but don’t expect much in the way of surprises. It doesn’t take private emails to know that the DNC wasn’t fond of Senator Bernie Sanders. (Nor is it all that shocking that party insiders favored the candidate who had longer-standing connections with them, and a powerful campaign apparatus, over an outside who only joined the Democratic Party on the eve of the campaign.)

More interesting is how the emails leaked out. When the leak occurred, the DNC and government officials said that Russian hackers were to blame. On Sunday, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook went on ABC’s This Week and repeated the allegation.

“What's disturbing about this entire situation is that experts are telling us that Russian state actors broke into the DNC, took all these emails and now are leaking them out through these Web sites …. for the purpose of helping Donald Trump,” he said. Mook also questioned whether the emails had been “doctored.”

There’s a whiff of CYA to this line of argument, the type of pleading delivered by a DNC that’s been caught in a bad place. Mook’s question aside, there seem to be no serious cases where DNC employees have claimed their emails were altered. But just because Democrats seem to be looking for an excuse doesn’t mean their excuse isn’t valid.

The FBI said Monday morning that it is investigating the email leak, and there’s a stack of evidence connecting the leak to Russia, which DefenseOne’s Patrick Tucker helpfully rounds up. Thomas Rid has more at Motherboard. The New York Times suggests the question is not who did it, but on what authority: “Whether the thefts were ordered by Mr. Putin, or just carried out by apparatchiks who thought they might please him, is anyone’s guess.”

That all suggests a disturbing chain of events: Russian-government hackers worked their way into the Democratic Party’s email system, smuggled out what they wanted, and then delivered the cache to WikiLeaks right on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, and right after Donald Trump’s coronation at the Republican National Convention, to maximize the negative impact of the revelations. (A WikiLeaks tweet in which the organization gives itself a pat on the back can be read as an ironic commentary on a Putinist plot.) The Russian government, in other words, could be attempting to meddle with the results of the U.S. presidential election. As journalists who have covered Russia, as well as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, pointed out, such an action would be in line with previous Russian interference in foreign elections, most of them closer to home.

The Clinton campaign has already begun making a case that Donald Trump is not just sympathetic to, but actively in league with, Vladimir Putin. One candidate lodging such an allegation against another would be effectively unprecedented, the Times notes. (Foreign interference, however, might not be; nor, needless to say, is the U.S. innocent of meddling in foreign elections.) Michael Isikoff reports on how a consultant working for the DNC started getting frequent messages saying her account was being targeted by “state-sponsored actors” after she began investigating Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who previously worked for a Putin client. “Since I started digging into Manafort, these messages have been a daily oc­­­­currence on my Yahoo account despite changing my password often,” she wrote to a DNC employee.

Isikoff explains the importance of that revelation: It is “the first indication that the reach of the hackers who penetrated the DNC extended beyond the official email accounts of committee officials to include their private email and potentially the content on their smartphones.”

Setting the emails aside, my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg wrote last week, the idea of a Putin-Trump alliance isn’t easy to dismiss out of hand:

I am not suggesting that Donald Trump is employed by Putin—though his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was for many years on the payroll of the Putin-backed former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. I am arguing that Trump’s understanding of America’s role in the world aligns with Russia’s geostrategic interests; that his critique of American democracy is in accord with the Kremlin’s critique of American democracy; and that he shares numerous ideological and dispositional proclivities with Putin—for one thing, an obsession with the sort of “strength” often associated with dictators. Trump is making it clear that, as president, he would allow Russia to advance its hegemonic interests across Europe and the Middle East.

Whether or not the Russian government hacked and leaked the emails to harm Hillary Clinton, and even whether or not the Russian government had a role in the hack in the first place, the Kremlin’s interest in Trump’s success doesn’t require a great deal of sleuthing; it’s as plain as the policies he proposes.