Even Trump supporters have become wedded over time to the baseline narrative of “Russian interference in the 2016 election.” Try to suggest, in the last few days, that Joe Biden may ironically have been correct in his hapless claim that the interference outlined in that narrative didn’t happen on his watch, and Trump’s strongest supporters have been some of the loudest voices insisting on the interference.
Which, if it happened as described, certainly happened on Biden’s watch, and Obama’s.
But the overall story has never made sense, and a new report by Aaron Maté at Real Clear Investigations reminds us that the evidence for it — as the predicate for the “Russia-Trump investigation” — has always been thin and pocked with unfilled holes. (Maté does not conclude that it didn’t happen; only that the evidence that it did is still inconclusive.)
That includes the evidence as presented in the Mueller report. We have become so accustomed to considering the election interference narrative as a given that few now take the trouble to question it. But all the same questions remain, and there has not been a satisfactory, conclusive answer to any of them.
Nothing here means that Russia doesn’t routinely – indeed, constantly – engage in attempts at disinformation and informational sabotage. The record of such activities by Russia in the United States is a century long and growing. Russia has been trying to attack our politics and the atmosphere of our public square since the earliest days of the 1917 Revolution. Viewing the U.S. as Russia’s chief geopolitical rival, Moscow continued that pattern even after the Soviet Union collapsed more than a quarter century ago.
So the point is not that Russia doesn’t try to interfere in our politics. The point is that the particular details of the narrative about interference in the 2016 election don’t hang together to produce meaning about the election. They never did. The narrative woven from the alleged facts was meant to implicate Trump in an attempt to nefariously and decisively sway the U.S. election, and nothing in the narrative could, by any rational calculation, have accomplished that.
The “emails” theme
But even if we assume for the sake of argument that it could, the evidence for who did what remains inconclusive. At The Federalist, Madeline Osburn has a useful summary of some of Maté’s most important points, which do definitive damage to the structural features of the election interference narrative.
One point is “uncertainty over who stole the DNC emails,” which were released by WikiLeaks in the summer of 2016. Osburn quotes a passage from the Mueller report cited by Maté:
[T]he report acknowledges that Mueller has not actually established how WikiLeaks acquired the stolen information: “The Office cannot rule out that stolen documents were transferred to WikiLeaks through intermediaries who visited during the summer of 2016.”
In other words, Mueller couldn’t rule out the possibility that the emails weren’t used by the Russians to attack the election at all, even if they did pilfer the emails. This in spite of the impressive detail in which Mueller’s indictment of Russian cyber-attackers lays out the organizational structure and attributed methods of the state agencies said to be behind the DNC/DCCC intrusions. That scope of detail doesn’t establish certainty about the authorship of an imputed attack on the election.
Such a vulnerability in the nature of the evidence would eviscerate any case brought in court. Yet the “DNC emails” data point has been held up by the media and politicians as established fact, and used to bootstrap in the whole theme that the Trump campaign team was colluding with Russia in seeking embarrassing emails from the accounts of Democrats, as a means of unduly influencing the election.
Osburn cites as well the points that Julian Assange has never been interviewed – an obvious necessity for verifying the provenance of WikiLeaks releases – and the FBI has never been able to inspect the DNC email server, relying instead on a redacted report about the system intrusion obtained from the lawyers representing the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike.
None of this would stand up under cross-examination in court, yet we are supposed to accept it as evidence not only that Russia was interfering in the U.S. election but that there was reason to suspect the Trump campaign was involved.
Osburn also mentions John Brennan’s prominent role in selling the Russian interference narrative – which would have its own problems in court, given Brennan’s documented history of untruthful statements.
Other themes in the narrative
There were two other aspects of the theoretical Russian interference: the attempts to breach voter information systems in some of the U.S. states, and the use of Russian “trolls” to post political content on social media. These are also problematic as elements of the Russiagate narrative, when reduced to the actual evidence.
The strongest point, from a realistic and logical standpoint, would be the attempt to intrude in voter information systems. Yet it has gotten comparatively little attention or media treatment, largely for two reasons: it can’t be connected to Trump in any way, and it ultimately had no effect. Former President Obama himself said there was no evidence that the intrusion attempts affected the vote.
The connection of this effort to Russia must also come into doubt, given the heavily politicized emphasis on implicating Russia – without independently verifiable evidence – in the email server intrusions. China could have been behind it, for example, and would undoubtedly have as much motive as Russia.
The silliest story ever told
As for the online trolls, the narrative about this has always been quite silly, if one takes a single step back for perspective. That’s even assuming, as I am happy right now to stipulate, that there was a troll factory in St. Petersburg that operated as described.
Besides the fact that much of the content promoted by the troll effort on Facebook was posted only after the November 2016 election, there is the fact that the actual content consisted of the same things American users were posting themselves.
The Russian trolls are accused of mimicking U.S. users and posting either the exact same content generated by U.S. users, or content replicating the same themes. In addition to good-quality content, the trolls reportedly re-shared poorly sourced (sometimes false) blog articles on Twitter and Facebook – which Americans were already doing. The trolls re-shared meme images that Americans were already sharing, and may have generated new ones flogging the same themes.
These activities have been packaged and trumpeted as vaguely, non-parsably central to the so-called “fake news” phenomenon, which itself has at its core little but smoke, mirrors, and an endless chain of baiting and switching of propositions.
In one oft-cited instance, meanwhile, Russian trolls are said to have gotten a few people (maybe 20, or maybe not that many) to show up at a “fake” Trump rally in Florida scheduled via Facebook. But “fake” has to be put in quotation marks here, because although it wasn’t scheduled by Americans, the rally was attended by actual American Trump supporters.
In another, much bigger instance, an anti-Trump protest reportedly “organized” by Russian trolls after the election was attended by thousands.
One can imagine the Russian trolls giggling themselves silly over having such an effect. But you have to be steeped in Kool-Aid-drinking fatuity to think that any of this affected the outcome of the election. The absurdity of that proposition should speak for itself. Trump supporters would show up for a scheduled Trump rally because they were already Trump supporters – just as they would “like” and share meme images and links to blog articles because they already favored the content.
The same goes for the themes the Russian trolls flogged to gratify Hillary-supporting Democrats and others like supporters of Black Lives Matter. To suggest that voters’ or activists’ minds were swayed by the online troll effort is to deal in what is not just unproven but not realistically provable by any method. I doubt anyone would seriously argue that it took Russian trolls to incite Trump’s opponents to protest him in large numbers the week after the election.
Of course we don’t like the idea of foreigners using fake identities to run political content about our elections as if they’re Americans. But it’s not illegal to post political content under an alias, nor would Americans in general agree that it should be. What the Russians have actually been charged with is establishing user identities fraudulently – not because they used aliases, but because they represented themselves fraudulently as Americans – and committing fraud in paying for their social-media advertising.
Did any of that have anything to do with Trump, or collusion with Trump? Not a thing. The “troll” theme has been used as padding for the overall narrative, to make it seem as if the “interference” effort was vaster and more full of indictable activities than it really was. It was low-cost padding too, since there was never any chance the indicted Russians (especially military intelligence officers) would show up in a U.S. court for prosecution.
Mueller will never have to prove a case against a robust defense at trial. Certainly, he will never have to prove that his indicted defendants actually affected the election. He’s not even trying to.
What apparently didn’t happen
There’s a lot to question about the narrative of “Russian interference in the 2016 election.” Wholly undemonstrated in it are the propositions that (a) the alleged interference actually made any difference to the outcome, and (b) any of it involved Trump.
And if we inspect the individual elements of the narrative – emails, voter system intrusion, trolling, any of that implying Russia-Trump collusion – and find that after three-plus years there is no stronger evidence for them than there ever was, we are driven to a specific and logical conclusion.
Suspicions about Russian interference and collusion by Trump never justified the “investigations” we’ve been treated to at all.
Suspicions about Russian interference are a legitimate concern, although if we separate them from any allegation about “collusion,” it’s not necessarily clear what kind of concern. Intruding into state voter information systems has obviously alarming implications, specifically as regards elections. But what, exactly, is our concern about third parties replicating on social media the same themes Americans are already talking about amongst ourselves?
That is a question for another context. And that’s the whole point. The question isn’t about anything Trump did. Something similar is true of the “stolen emails” issue. We’d all like better cybersecurity. But did the release of stolen Democratic emails affect the outcome of the election? Could it have done so, given what we know about the contents of those emails – and what the cyber-thieves and WikiLeaks also knew before they were published?
No one has succeeded in making that case. Mueller didn’t even try. He didn’t show how releasing the Democratic emails could possibly have affected the election in some untoward manner. There was truly no there there: no evidence of collusion, and no evidence for motive in the particular story of collusion painted for us.
Sure, Russia waged a disinformation campaign against our election, as part of what Russia is always doing to pollute our political dialogue.
But the use of law enforcement tools against Trump and his associates was unjustified, and was never predicated on a legitimate suspicion.
That’s what we should be talking about – because that would mean that the whole enterprise was always something else: something not an investigation based on probable cause. Don’t be too quick to affirm the standard “Russian interference” narrative just because doing so makes Joe Biden look, in passing, like a fool. It may be far more important that Biden is actually, if inadvertently, right.