The Response to Russian Election Interference May be Worse Than Actual Interference
What is the greater threat to the United States, our elections, and our institutions: Russian election interference or the politicization of intelligence?
On Thursday the New York Times reported that:
Intelligence officials warned House lawmakers last week that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Trump re-elected, five people familiar with the matter said, a disclosure to Congress that angered Mr. Trump, who complained that Democrats would use it against him.
Trump’s critics pounced on the news. It was said this was evidence that Trump is really just Putin’s puppet. Implicit in such a response was that it was the duty of every patriotic American to vote him out.
But, the natural question is can it be proved.
As Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart pointed out, it does not pass the smell test, “I’d challenge anyone to give me a real-world argument where Putin would rather have President Trump and not Bernie Sanders.” Indeed, Ukraine-gate and rhetoric notwithstanding, Trump has been far tougher on Russia than any of the Democrats would be, because they are all talk and no walk.
It’s ironic that critics are ridiculing Ambassador to Germany Ric Grennel, Trump’s pick to be acting director of national intelligence, for not being well liked in Germany, because one reason Grennel is not well liked in Germany is because he’s pushing Berlin to take a harder line towards Moscow.
This explosive allegation needs more proof than “five people familiar with the matter” talking to the New York Times for it to be treated as definitive. As CNN’s Jake Tapper illustrated Friday morning with his own source.
Tapper’s source told him:
What’s been articulated in the news is that the intelligence community has concluded that the Russians are trying to help Trump again. But the intelligence doesn’t say that… It’s more that they understand the president is someone they can work with, he’s a dealmaker. But not that they prefer him over Sanders or Buttigieg or anyone else. So it may have been mischaracterized by [briefer] Shelby [Pierson].
This makes much more sense to anyone who is actually interested in understanding the Trump-Putin relationship rather than the daily political food fights that dominate political discourse.
Trump says nice things about Putin, not because he loves dictators or stands to make money on hotels in the country, but because he views himself as a dealmaker and, according to his logic, it makes no sense to personally antagonize someone your are trying to make a deal with. It is the same dynamic he has with Kim Jong-un.
Meanwhile on the evidence front, CBS’s Catherine Herridge reported on Twitter, “Asked if there was signals intelligence — such as phone intercepts or ‘SIGINT’ — to back up claims, source said briefers had none to offer.”
If you’re keeping score, that’s a lack of evidence to back up the claim and another source claiming the original bombshell is more of a dud.
But, it does not matter because the initial story got out. It does not matter how many contradictory reports there are, people will still believe that Trump is the Kremlin’s dream come true, because some hack, likely either a Democratic politician or staffer, leaked it to make Trump look bad and anybody who dares asks questions is complicit.
Also on Friday the Washington Post reported that Russia is trying to help Bernie Sanders’ campaign. While, the reporting is problematic for the “Russia is trying to get Trump re-elected” narrative, the Post’s reporting has the same problems as the NYT-Trump reporting, “It is not clear what form that Russian assistance has taken.”
It’s appears to be another selective leak meant to damage the candidate. According to Sanders, he was briefed a month ago, but the story only came out on Friday. When asked why, Sanders replied, “I’ll let you guess how, one day before the Nevada caucus.”
Intelligence and spying are, by definition and by necessity, secretive. If you want to combat foreign election inference, the best way to do that is through education. Give people signs to watch out for, the historical context that is always missing from these conversations, and remind people that while Putin may seek to sow discord, disagreeing with each other is not “giving Putin exactly what he wants,” but just a pseudo-intellectual way to get others to shut up.
It also means not leaking select details of briefings to make certain candidates look bad. You don’t want Trump ranting about the “deep state,” then do not do what the New York Times and whoever leaked the details of the briefing did. It makes it look like the non-partisan, apolitical intelligence agencies are picking sides in an election and the only logical reaction to that is that people lose faith in the intel agencies which can only be a bad thing, especially when it is at the expense of anti-establishmentarians.
Ultimately, a politicized national security apparatus is a far greater threat to norms and institutions than Moscow-originated Twitter bot, because nobody ever lost an election because the GRU operated a couple of sock puppets.