Editor’s note: Upon checking Twitter after finishing this post, I learned that the FBI now agrees with the CIA that Russia intervened to help Trump. Glad I could persuade them.
Let’s start with a hypothetical. Imagine that someone — let’s call him, I don’t know, Vladimir — is wondering whether to perform action X. Vladimir knows that X will lead to results Y and Z, both of which benefit him. Perhaps he is more interested in one of the two; nonetheless, he knows that both will occur. With this knowledge, Vladimir performs action X. Both Y and Z result. Did Vladimir intend to cause Outcome Z?
You got me: This wasn’t a hypothetical at all! Rather, it was a description of Russia’s interference in our recent election. In deciding to hack the DNC’s servers and release a tide of embarrassing emails about the internal machinations of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the DNC itself, Russian officials knew that they would introduce some chaos into our political system. They also must have known that the chaos they were sewing was likely to benefit Donald Trump. Yet we are now caught up in a stupid debate over whether Russia intended to help Trump. This debate adds up to little more than an impossible-to-resolve argument over the mental state of Vladimir Putin and his cronies. In the words of a U.S. official, quoted in a Reuters story about the intelligence community’s response to the hacks: “[The Office of the Director of National Intelligence] is not arguing that the agency (CIA) is wrong, only that they can’t prove intent… Of course they can’t, absent agents in on the decision-making in Moscow.” But Russian officials must have known that their actions would help Trump. They undertook those actions with that knowledge. If that’s not intent, I don’t know what is: Even under U.S. criminal law, people can be convicted if it was “reasonably foreseeable” that their actions would lead to a certain outcome. At the very least, Russia could have foreseen that its actions would help Trump. More likely, given Trump’s man-crush on Putin, and Putin’s hatred for Hillary Clinton, Russian officials actively hoped that their actions would help Trump.
Here, I think, is the most plausible account of Russia’s evolving intentions. Sometime in 2015, Russian hackers break into the DNC’s computer system, with the aim of sewing uncertainty and chaos among the American electorate — a favorite Russian foreign-policy tactic. At this point, Trump is only one of many Republicans in the race. Putin, whose entire worldview is premised on the fundamental weakness of Western liberal democracy, probably gives Trump a better chance to win than most do, and certainly hopes he will — after all, Russia has been funding right-wing nationalist parties in Europe for years. But Putin still probably thinks a Trump victory is unlikely. So when the DNC hacking begins, Russian officials don’t have any specific outcome in mind. They just want to mess with our democracy.
Fast forward to summer 2016. Trump is the Republican nominee. After the Republican National Convention and the Comey press conference, he briefly surpasses Hillary Clinton in the polls. Nate Silver gives him a 50% chance at winning. And suddenly, as the Democratic National Convention is getting underway, here come the emails. It turns out — shocker! — that the DNC leadership didn’t like the guy who spent much of the campaign complaining about them. The leaked emails don’t show any actual interference with the primary process, but Bernie Sanders supporters take the bait and throw a fit about DNC “corruption,” becoming Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical pawns in the process (How’s that for irony?). DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz has to step down on the eve of the convention she was supposed to preside over, and Bernie’s supporters boo when Hillary’s name is announced. For the Democrats, it’s an ugly scene. Donald Trump, meanwhile, gleefully tweets about the DNC’s supposed corruption.
What are the Russians thinking at this point? Their worst-case scenario is that the leaks don’t help one candidate or the other, but simply sew chaos. Clearly, though, that’s not what’s happening: The leaks are hurting Clinton and boosting Trump. This probably makes the Russians very, very happy. And they keep the leaks coming. After the Convention, the leaks tail off for a bit, but then another batch of emails surfaces on Wikileaks in mid-October, and the story has new legs. We learn the contents of Clinton’s paid speeches to Goldman Sachs; we learn that Neera Tanden thinks Hillary’s instincts are “suboptimal.” And as the leaks continue in dribs and drabs throughout October, we can infer that whoever is behind these leaks is interested not in transparency, but in dragging out the leaks, keeping the story in the headlines as long as possible, and continuing to damage Clinton.
Then Comey sends his letter to Congress. October turns into November. We all know what happens next.
So now we’re left with a question: What was Russia’s intent? At first, mainly, to cause chaos: Outcome Y, from our initial hypothetical. But as Trump’s odds of winning increase, and it becomes clear that the emails are helping him, the Russians see another benefit, Outcome Z: They could help Trump win, or at the very least, undermine Hillary Clinton’s legitimacy if she wins. What we’re debating right now is the relative weight of these two motives in Vladimir Putin’s mind. This is a stupid debate, for two reasons.
The first is that we will never know the answer. As that U.S. official said, you can’t know intent unless you’re in on the decision-making process. Absent that, you can only infer intent from actions.
The second is that it is so easy to draw the inference that the Russians put at least some weight on helping Trump. Why wouldn’t they? Anyone who denies that Russia intended to help Trump must answer this question. That’s why some House Republicans have taken to claiming that, because Trump said he wants to beef up our military, Russia would have preferred a Clinton victory. Never mind the fact that Trump also says he would use his beefed-up military to cooperate with Russia.
The only possible argument that the Russians weren’t trying to aid Trump is that they simply took the actions available to them and aided Trump inadvertently. That’s why the question of whether the Republican National Committee was hacked is so key. If the Russians hacked the RNC — as intelligence officials have claimed — but didn’t leak anything, then they actively chose to leak only information damaging to Clinton: a clear sign of intent. If the Russian attempts to hack the RNC were “much less persistent and aggressive than the effort against Democratic officials,” as other sources have claimed, that’s less of a smoking gun, but pretty revelatory as well. According to the sources claiming that the Russians tried and failed to hack the RNC, “the hackers targeted only a single email account of a former RNC staffer” — hardly the sustained cyber-assault that the Democrats sustained.
Yet even if this argument were supported by evidence — which it isn’t — it wouldn’t hold up logically. Because, again: Why wouldn’t the Russians want to help Trump? Trump has praised Putin, refrained from criticizing his support of Bashar al-Assad, refrained from criticizing his annexation of Crimea, questioned the United States’ commitment to its NATO allies, promised to cooperate with Russia in fighting ISIS, denied that Russia interfered in the election, and nominated a Secretary of State who doesn’t believe American sanctions against Russia are working. By contrast, Putin blames Clinton for supporting the protests that broke out after Putin stole Russia’s 2011 election.
Knowing that leaking the hacked emails would hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump, and with good reason to desire that result, Putin leaked the emails. What’s more, there’s evidence that he chose not to take actions that would have created more chaos, but would have hurt Trump and boosted Clinton. So you tell me: Did Vladimir Putin intend to help Donald Trump?