It seems increasingly, frighteningly possible that the U.S. presidential election may very well be influenced by Russian president Vladimir Putin. In our current political contest, the Russian president has clearly chosen a like-minded candidate to support, and mounting evidence suggests he is not just rooting from the stands, but possibly actively engaged in trying to ensure Donald Trump comes out on top. There is considerable evidence that Kremlin-backed actors are behind the cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee, and as Trump himself has suggested, they may possess thousands more stolen emails, potentially timed to create an October Surprise.
In other words, Putin, an anti-democracy autocrat, may be trying to move the pieces in a U.S. election to ensure a president who will help the Russian leader realize his expansionist vision and save his country’s economy. Considering Trump’s team of Moscow loyalists, his reported reliance on oligarch cash, his endless praise of Putin—and his invitation to Russia to commit espionage against this country—it seems that Putin may be getting help from the Trump campaign.
There was already evidence that Trump, whom conservative writer Max Boot recently described as “more pro-Russia than any previous presidential candidate,” has a vested interest in keeping close ties with the country. As Boot notes, Russian investors have been indispensable to Trump, “especially after most American banks stopped lending to him following his multiple bankruptcies.” John Marshall of TPM points to lawsuits against Trump that reveal sketchy sounding “secret financing” on real estate projects, and “unexplained infusions of cash from accounts in Kazakhstan and Russia.” The Washington Post reports that in 2008 Trump’s son Donald Jr. stated that, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of [his family’s] assets.” Since launching his candidacy, Trump’s liquid assets have shrunk, while his debt has ballooned from an estimated $350 million to $630 million. A continued influx of Russian dollars is probably crucial to any illusion of a Trump empire.
George Will, who departed the GOP over his disgust with Trump, sees in the candidate’s refusal to release his tax returns probable cause for suspicion that they may reveal questionable dealings with rich Russians closely connected to Putin. “Perhaps one more reason why we’re not seeing his tax returns,” Will opined recently, “[is] because he is deeply involved in dealing with Russia oligarchs and others. Whether that’s good, bad or indifferent, it’s probably the reasonable surmise.”
While it is one thing to make nice with a world leader, it is another to make a practice of fawning over Putin as Trump has for nearly a decade, variously describing the Russian president as “a big hero,” “a strong leader” and “brilliant.” (The billionaire contrasted that flattery with disparaging comments about American presidents Bush and Obama.) Putin has responded with more muted compliments, calling Trump “colorful” and “talented”—though despite Trump’s repeated claims, the word “genius” never actually came up. But while Putin has demurred on publicly endorsing Trump’s presidential candidacy, the country’s propaganda channel, Russia Today, has reportedly gone all in on pro-Trump, anti-Clinton messaging.
Getting beyond the star-crossed authoritarians’ warm feelings for each other, there’s also the matter of those Trump has handpicked to lead his election team. Foreign policy adviser Michael Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, reportedly set off “alarms within military and intelligence circles” last year when he was filmed sitting next to Putin at a gala for the Russia Today network, on which Flynn frequently appears. (The retired U.S. Army lieutenant general also landed in hot water last weekend for retweeting an antisemitic message.) Carter Page, whom the conservative National Review labels “an out-and-out Putinite,” was an executive in Merrill Lynch’s Moscow office and has advised numerous Russian companies, including state-run gas behemoth Gazprom. During a speech in Russia earlier this month, Page criticized the U.S. for its “often-hypocritical focus on democratization,” and failure to work with Russia and China, countries that have embraced the virtues of “respect, equality and mutual benefit.”
Then there’s Paul Manafort, Trump’s top campaign adviser. Back in 1980—along with right-wing henchman and fellow Trump adviser Roger Stone—Manafort co-founded the lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly. The group aided numerous Republican politicians, but really cashed in “by representing a rogue’s gallery of clients far away from D.C.’s genteel corridors of power: dictators, guerilla groups, and despots with no regard for human rights,” according to the Daily Beast. (The site links to an interview last year in which Stone fondly recalled how the firm had “lined up most of the dictators of the world we could find.”) More recently, Manafort played a critical role in the image makeover that helped Ukrainian politician Viktor Yanukovych get elected president of the country in 2010. Four years later, following the Ukrainian revolution, the Putin-allied president was ousted from office.
“We hear that an adviser of Yanukovych, Paul Manafort, has been hired by the Donald Trump campaign,” Pavel Yarmolenko, of the Ukraine Freedom Support Group, told the Daily Beast. “This is someone who took part in perversion of democracy in Ukraine and if [Manafort’s] role in that fiasco turns out to be substantial, then he should not be allowed within 100 feet of government buildings of any self-respecting democracy.”
Most recently, Trump not only stated that he “hopes” the Russians have already breached the private email of his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, he personally extended an invitation for them to hack into her files in search of smear-worthy information.
“They probably have her 33,000 emails,” Trump said. “I hope they do. They probably have her 33,000 emails that she lost and deleted because you’d see some beauties there.”
He added, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Trump’s insane request that Russia—a country with which we have notoriously uneasy relations—meddle in American electoral politics to uncover material he hopes will effectively help hand him the presidency veers very close to textbook treason. (That might explain why Google searches for “Donald Trump Treason” skyrocketed in the hours following his remarks.) In nearly the same breath, the Republican presidential candidate—who also jubilantly suggested he had heard Vladimir Putin use a racial slur against Barack Obama—stated that Russia is “probably not” behind last week’s leak of some 20,000 stolen Democratic National Committee emails and other secret documents. Consistency not being his strong suit, Trump circuitously went on to say that if Russia had engineered the DNC computer server break-in, “it shows how little respect they have for our country.” The obvious inference to be made is that Trump, and Trump alone, can fix that.
“He will respect me,” Trump said. “I think [Putin] does respect me. And I hope I get along great with him.”
Trump’s aspiration of becoming bosom buddies with a fellow authoritarian who is funding rightwing movements all over Europe is definitely not proof the GOP contender is getting Russia to do his dirty work. But add to this to what we know about the DNC cyber break-in and the optics are fairly terrible.
In mid-June, DNC cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike posted on its blog that “two separate Russian intelligence-affiliated adversaries” had breached the DNC’s computer servers. The company implicated two groups, APT 28 (aka FANCY BEAR) and APT 29 (aka COZY BEAR), the former having infiltrated DNC servers as long ago as last summer, the latter in April this year. CrowdStrike co-founder and CTO Dmitri Alperovitch wrote that both groups are well-known to his company and exemplary at their job. “Our team considers them some of the best adversaries out of all the numerous nation-state, criminal and hacktivist/terrorist groups we encounter on a daily basis,” Alperovitch stated in the post. “Their tradecraft is superb, operational security second to none and the extensive usage of ‘living-off-the-land’ techniques enables them to easily bypass many security solutions they encounter.
In a comprehensive Motherboard article, Vice’s Thomas Rid details the many clear indications that this was a Kremlin-backed attack. Documents show evidence of file modification by a user named “Феликс Эдмундович.” There are also hyperlinks in Cyrillic. The self-described Romanian hacker who claimed responsibility, Guccifer 2.0, initially refused to speak Romanian during an interview, then later committed errors a native speaker would be unlikely to make. National security-focused outlet Defense One points to a July 2015 report by cybersecurity firm FireEye noting APT 29 “cease operations on Russian holidays, and their work hours seem to align with the UTC +3 time zone, which contains cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Buzzfeed News notes that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange—who made clear the data spill, which hit on the eve of the DNC, was timed to maximize damage to Clinton—“had a TV show on Russian state television, criticized the Panama Papers for including Putin in their investigation, and took credit for delivering Ed Snowden to the Kremlin’s doorstep.” Even Trump’s own guy, Ret. Lt. Gen. Flynn, told Bloomberg News that Russia has “the full capability to do this.” He added, “If someone were to find out Russia did this, I would not be surprised at all.”
Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia 2012-2014, informed Politico that Putin may have additional, personal reasons for backing Trump and attempting to find dirt on his opponent. McFaul says the Russian President was “very upset” with Clinton after she suggested the country’s 2011 elections were rigged, and blamed her for the civil unrest that followed. “One could speculate that this is his moment for payback,” McFaul suggests. He also told the Washington Post that Trump’s behavior toward Russia “makes everyone I talk to around the world nervous—and it makes me nervous.”
The fallout from the revelations in the leaked files—signs of DNC officials’ preference for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders; a staffer’s proposal to out Sanders as an atheist to weaken his campaign; perks given to big donors—was swift: less than 24 hours after the data leak, DNC head Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned her position as party chairwoman. The remaining consequences aren’t yet quantifiable—public shaming and bad press being imprecise measurements this far out—with the full impact not likely to be apparent until the November elections. Until then, experts say there’s probably still more to come, with data leaks timed to do maximum damage.
“If there is a concerted effort to undermine the campaign of the Democratic Party nominee, we can and should expect additional embarrassing emails to be released by WikiLeaks, including from candidate Hillary Clinton’s personal server,” David Shedd, former chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Daily Beast.
World powers spy on each other; it’s what they do. The U.S. engages in this sort of unsavory stuff all the time, so there’s no moral higher ground to stand on while finger-wagging at Russia. Clinton’s emails may well contain damning information of the sort that often comes to light when we get a look at how the political sausage is made. All that said, the departure from the everyday to be witnessed here is that Russia is the prime suspect in a cybercrime undertaken to manipulate an American presidential election on behalf of a dangerous, anti-democracy demagogue.
That same demagogue, the Republican Party’s candidate of choice, has now publicly requested that our geopolitical frenemy muck with the U.S. democratic process so he can gather the spoils. On paper, the DNC hack seems like a poorly conceived remake of a 1980s Cold War film, the details tweaked for digital age relevance, with Kremlin-backed hackers, a Watergate-style cyberattack and theft of embarrassing secrets from a major U.S. political party. Were it unfolding on a multiplex screen, the story would undoubtedly seem hokey and even hamfisted. The real-life situation playing out on a global stage is far more risky for much of the world. Slate’s Franklin Foer explains how this looks from the other end:
Over the past decade, Russia has boosted right-wing populists across Europe. It loaned money to Marine Le Pen in France… Such largesse also wended its way to the former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, who profited “personally and handsomely” from Russian energy deals, as an American ambassador to Rome once put it… There’s a clear pattern: Putin runs stealth efforts on behalf of politicians who rail against the European Union and want to push away from NATO. He’s been a patron of Golden Dawn in Greece, Ataka in Bulgaria, and Jobbik in Hungary. Joe Biden warned about this effort last year in a speech at the Brookings Institution: “President Putin sees such political forces as useful tools to be manipulated, to create cracks in the European body politic which he can then exploit.” Ruptures that will likely multiply after Brexit—a campaign Russia’s many propaganda organs bombastically promoted. The destruction of Europe is a grandiose objective; so is the weakening of the United States. Until recently, Putin has only focused glancing attention on American elections. Then along came the presumptive Republican nominee.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid went so far as to suggest Trump, who as the GOP’s presidential nominee has the option to receive intelligence briefings, be denied access to any important classified information. “How would the CIA and the other intelligence agencies brief this guy? How could they do that?” Reid posed during a Huffington Post interview. “I would suggest to the intelligence agencies, if you’re forced to brief this guy, don’t tell him anything, just fake it, because this man is dangerous. Fake it, pretend you’re doing a briefing, but you can’t give the guy any information.”
The Trump approach to Russia is the “biggest dream of everyone in the Kremlin,” Tina Khidasheli, the defense minister of American ally Georgia, told the Washington Post. “It’s scary, it’s dangerous, and it’s irresponsible.”
“Trump goes out of his way to praise Vladimir Putin, he advocates pro-Russian foreign policy positions—like breaking commitments to America’s European allies—and now he’s hoping Russia hacked the secretary of state’s emails?” Senator Ron Wyden asked rhetorically, in an interview with the Guardian. “Anyone who cares about U.S. national security should be truly alarmed about the possibility that this man could be our president.”
“Given Donald Trump’s well known admiration for Putin and his belittling of NATO, the Russians have both the means and the motive to engage in a hack of the DNC and the dump of its emails prior to the Democratic Convention,” California Rep. Adam Schiff told the Daily Beast. “That foreign actors may be trying to influence our election—let alone a powerful adversary like Russia—should concern all Americans of any party.”
That’s probably true. But these kinds of things only inspire concern among Trump and his devotees when the shoe is on the other—Democratic—foot. Rest assured, were a Democratic politician embroiled in this mess, Trumpites would be lobbing the words “traitor” and “treason” with gusto, and based on far less information. West Virginia lawmaker Michael Folk recently tweeted his wish that Clinton be tried for treason, with a vicious and violent outcome. Last week, New Hampshire state congressman and Trump veterans’ adviser Al Baldasaro suggested Clinton “should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.” He later doubled down on those remarks in a statement to the Daily Beast that reads a bit differently after the events of the last week. “When people take confidential material off a server, you’re sharing information with the enemy,” Baldasaro told the site. “That’s treason.” Trump has essentially accused Obama of being a traitor at every chance, from suggesting the President was working with ISIL following the Orlando massacre, to questioning his citizenship back in his birther days. Meanwhile, the right wing media that scaremongered to its audience about Obama with near impressive consistency for nearly eight years has been falling allover themselves to make excuses for Trump’s shout out to Russian spies.
None of this will make a dent in Trump’s numbers, and neither will it do anything to change the minds of those who follow him. It doesn’t even matter that their candidate is such a liar he can’t keep his facts straight, alternately stating he knows Putin “very well” and later claiming he “never met Putin.” (It turns out the latter is likely the truth, or as close as one comes to it with Trump.) Despite proclaiming themselves the party of patriots—“real Americans” and all that other nonsense—and a previous affinity for Russia-bashing, the people who now see Trump as their savior will only love him more for what they read not as a treasonous act, but yet more flipping off the establishment.
This is a group that includes the sort of people who have called for Obama’s impeachment for a series of fantasy misdeeds, suggested the president is an agent of a rogue state, repeatedly accused him of trying to undermine democracy, of hating this country, of working in cahoots with forces that might do us harm, of violating the Constitution, of failing to invest in national security, and yes, of committing treason at every turn. Donald Trump issues an on-camera, public invite to Russia to throw an election, and his legions of followers will only become more zealous in their love for him. The hypocrisy is so overwhelming it would hurt if we hadn’t already been numbed by it.
For the rest of us, here’s an interesting tidbit.
It’s well known that Trump cares so little about domestic and foreign policy—aka “all policy”—that he plans to stick his vice president with that stuff. That’s why it was unsurprising that as the Republican Party was crafting its 2016 platform, Trump showed utter disinterest in the process, contributing nothing and offering no ideas. Except on one singular, but significant, point. Trump’s team fought to have the committee remove language that called for arming the Ukraine against Russian aggression. Days ago, Trump he’d give some thought to recognizing Crimea as Russia and lifting sanctions against the country if elected. That puts him at odds with nearly the entirety of the Republican Party—not to mention the EU—which has warily eyed Russia since the Cold War and criticized Obama as “weak” for not being more aggressive (read: hawkishly anti-Putin) during the Ukrainian situation. In this, there is a hint of what Trump cares about, and what he will do to have it. There are already plenty of reasons to worry about the integrity of America’s democratic process as it is, frankly. The list shouldn’t have to include fears that a major party candidate, one who has consistently proved himself unfit for any office, may be aiding a hostile foreign leader to undermine it.