Even by the ever-stretching standards of the president-elect, Donald Trump’s response to the accusations of Russian interference with the election is somewhat puzzling.
On the side that believes Russia is to blame, and ought to be punished, are the White House; the Republican leadership and most of the rank-and-file in both houses of Congress; and the intelligence community. They point to a plausible motive, which is the Kremlin’s hatred of Hillary Clinton, and a plausible precursor, which is the Kremlin’s pattern of interfering with other governments’ elections. Opposing them are Trump, his inner circles of aides, the Kremlin, which denies responsibility, and WikiLeaks, which insists it did not receive the documents from Russia-linked hackers.
While there is some principled skepticism about attributing the hacks to Russia, Trump’s mockery of the intelligence community has not cited specific concerns. And if, as his adviser Kellyanne Conway suggests, Trump is receiving information from other sources, it’s unclear why it would be more credible or accurate than that provided by the intelligence community. Moreover, neither Trump’s record of being either misinformed or simply uninformed about policy matters foreign and domestic, nor his choice of Mike Flynn, who has a penchant for lending credence to unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, as his national security adviser, provide much reason to believe him over the consensus view of the intelligence community.
But Trump’s reluctance to publicly accept Russian responsibility for the hack might have less to do with how he views the evidence than with how he views the stakes of the argument. He has consistently placed his emphasis on winning, and on presenting himself as a winner. And to the extent that claims of Russian hacking call the nature of his electoral victory into doubt, he’s responded by dismissing those claims, and emphasizing his triumph.
Take this pair of tweets on Wednesday morning:
Somebody hacked the DNC but why did they not have "hacking defense" like the RNC has and why have they not responded to the terrible......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2017
things they did and said (like giving the questions to the debate to H). A total double standard! Media, as usual, gave them a pass.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2017
On its face, this argument is incoherent. There’s no evident conflict between the view that the DNC should have maintained better defenses against intruders and acted more forcefully when informed about hacking attempts, and the view that foreign interference with U.S. elections is a dangerous thing.
Trump’s emphasis on a particular detail in the leaked DNC emails is similarly baffling. In one email, once and current interim DNC Chair Donna Brazile was revealed to have passed along a question for a future Democratic primary debate to the Hillary Clinton campaign. That was hardly ignored by the press; Brazile lost her contributor gig at CNN as a result. Bernie Sanders might be justifiably upset about Brazile’s actions, although the question she passed to Clinton was eminently predictable, but low-grade cheating in a Democratic presidential debate is also unrelated to the charge that a foreign government attempted to influence the presidential general election.
But the tweets become more legible if they’re read as a simple tally of advantages and disadvantages. Trump is unusually focused on “fairness”—consider the number of times he has tweeted about it—although his definition of the word often seems to hinge on whether or not something is good for him. But this idiosyncratic conception of fairness helps to explain Trump’s view of the hacks: If hacks targeted at the DNC helped give him a leg up, then they are counterbalanced by Brazile’s cheating, even if one is the result of a questionable cable-news model of hiring partisan operators and the other is allegedly designed to undermine American democracy.
Many Democrats encouraged this kind of thinking, in which partisan advantage is the metric by which competing claims are evaluated, with their muted responses to the initial reports of Russian hacking. When they believed that the interference was simply a headwind that would hinder but not stop Hillary Clinton’s march to the White House, they were willing to not make a big deal out of it. They may be right, now, that foreign interference in American elections is unacceptable, but they undermined their standing to make that case by downplaying it when they thought they had the political advantage.
The same zero-sum view might also help explain the alliances Trump strikes, which follow an almost amusingly straightforward enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend formulation. Perhaps Trump reasons that if he’s against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Obama is out to get Putin, and Putin is out to get Clinton, then he should be for Putin.
This would be one way to explain the sudden embrace of Julian Assange by Trump and his supporters. In 2010, CNN reports, Trump was asked about Wikileaks: “I think it's disgraceful, I think there should be like death penalty or something.” Fox News’ Sean Hannity also used to deplore Assange, but now finds him eminently trustworthy when he says Russian hackers were not WikiLeaks’ source. Sarah Palin has decided he’s OK, too. Meanwhile, Trump’s ostensible ally Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, told Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday that Assange was “a sycophant for Russia” who “steals data and compromises national security.” (Of course, one can believe the documents Assange has produced over the years while still questioning his motivations and his account of how he obtained those files.)
The press has eagerly ferreted out scores of inconsistencies in Trump’s public statements. On the hacks alone, there’s the conflict between his openly saying Russia should hack Hillary Clinton and his recent refusal to acknowledge Russia might even be a factor, or between his discussion of hacking during the campaign and his more recent, preposterous claim that no one brought it up during the campaign. Reporters should continue to do this, because it’s a valuable service for the public, but it’s not a surprise that Trump isn’t ashamed of the inconsistencies. Trump’s calculus is much simpler and more manichean. It was often said that Barack Obama was playing “12-dimensional chess” against his opponents. Trump is proudly playing checkers. And he’s winning.