Putin’s Cyberattack: No Effect on Election? Common Sense Says Otherwise.
On October 4, right before the Access Hollywood tapes broke, an article appeared in the Washington Post, describing the disappointment of Roger Stone and other backers of Donald Trump that the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks had not yet produced the “October surprise” it had been promising. “For weeks,” the article read, the Trump contingent had “hyped the tantalizing possibility” that a set of documents would be released that would “doom Hillary Clinton’s chances in November.” The promised leaks, whose origin Julian Assange would not reveal, was touted as “historic” and Texas radio host Alex Jones pronounced that “the Clintons will be devastated.” Assange recommended patience; he promised to reveal documents every week for the next ten weeks, and said that “some will have a direct bearing on the U.S. election.”
We now know, thanks to a 14-page U.S. intelligence finding released on January 6—a joint product of the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency--that the leaks were part of an intelligence operation personally ordered by Vladimir Putin with the purpose of “denying Hillary Clinton the presidency” and “installing Donald Trump in the Oval Office.” Putin had held a grudge against Clinton since 2011, the report stated, blaming her for inciting mass protests against his regime. As described by The New York Times, who devoted a massively headlined first-page to the news, the “classified, damning report,” “a virtually unheard-of, real-time revelation by the American intelligence agencies that undermined the legitimacy of the president who is about to direct them—made the case that Mr. Trump was the favored candidate of Mr. Putin,”whose efforts to “undermine [Clinton’s] future presidency” intensified when she appeared more likely to win the election. In addition to the email drip, Russian intelligence also used state-funded broadcasts, third party intermediaries, and paid social media trolls to spread false information “discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to [Trump.]”
How destructive to Clinton were the leaks? The report, unsurprisingly, was unable to officially make an assessment of that, which would require sophisticated multi-factorial analysis of events, polls, and public opinion leading up to the election to determine. Trump, of course, insists that they had absolutely no effect on the election results, and most pundits have seemed happy to go along with that conclusion. (Trump also described the focus on the hacks as “witch-hunt” conducted against him—pretty ironic, considering the hacks themselves were part of a witch-hunt aimed at Hillary.) Common sense, however, leads in a different direction than the “no effect” conclusion.
If the leaks were so innocuous, why then did Trump’s campaign and GOP-friendly media invest so much in disseminating the information contained in them? And how to explain why the right-wing media had initially bragged about how “devastating” they were going to be? Were they just teasing? Or did they know more than they revealed at the time?
The “middle-of-the-road” news stations like CNN shy away from what they fear would be seen as partisan, speculative analysis (although they actually engage in it all the time.) But I don’t have the same anxiety—and I encourage readers to consider the absurdity of imagining that a concerted Russian campaign of anti-Clinton propaganda—especially when put in the context the other anti-Clinton tactics and atmospherics I describe in my forthcoming book, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton—had no effect on the outcome of the election. By themselves, it’s unlikely that the leaks were a deciding factor. But the leaks never operated “by themselves.” Rather, they contributed to the “perfect storm” of political dirty tricks, fake news and mainstream media mindlessness that discredited Hillary at every turn, and in doing so carried Trump to the White House on a wave of Hillary-hate (or at the very least, mistrust.)
For one thing, the leaks kept “CLINTON EMAILS!!” at the forefront of the consciousness of voters, who had already been misled by James Comey’s reckless (and inaccurate) description of her behavior as “extremely careless.” Then, too, Bernie Sanders’ fans, who regarded WikiLeaks as part of the “left,” seized on leaked email evidence that the DNC had favored Clinton (and thus, according to them, that the primary was “rigged”), diluting whatever enthusiasm for Clinton had been developing among them—and in many cases, solidifying their determination to stay away from the polls, a failure of turn-out that Nate Silver has calculated was the kiss of death to Clinton’s chances of winning. The right, on their part, probably didn’t need to be convinced, but nonetheless gobbled up and publicized any new examples of Clinton’s “duplicity”—such as when leaked emails revealed comments in which she had defended the notion that one's public position often must diverge from one's private ideas. (I found this a particularly absurd attack. The fact is, if all of us, all the time, publicly expressed what we are privately thinking, there would be few friends or colleagues left standing.)
Arguably most destructive, though, because of the timing, were the leaks about the Clinton Foundation. They consisted largely of emails in which Chelsea Clinton and others expressed concerns about “appearances” (rather than revealing evidence of actual “pay for play”) but provided grist for the mill for a “rogue” New York faction within the FBI, who made the investigation into the foundation “very high priority” despite skepticism from FBI headquarters and superiors at the Justice Department. Attacks on the Clinton Foundation were already feeding the media mill and right-wing “crooked Clinton” theories via Clinton Cash, which—although widely discredited—was used (in author, Breitbart editor-at-large Peter Schweizer’s own words) as a “road map” by the agents doing the investigation. No “pay for play” was ever found (Schweitzer himself admits he doesn’t have any “direct evidence”), but not before the Trump campaign, FoxNews, “Morning Joe,” and others had trampled public opinion through the muck of their outrage over “blurred lines between the Clinton Foundation and the family’s business interests.” (Trump should talk!) Princeton academic Eddie Cloude, for example, without a shread of evidence beyond “bad optics,” fulminated on “Morning Joe” about Clinton’s serious “moral and ethical deficit.”
Note well the timing of all this:
“When it appeared that Mrs. Clinton was more likely to win,” Moscow “focused more on undercutting [her] legitimacy and crippling her presidency from the start.” (The Los Angeles Times, quoting from the U.S. intelligence report)
On October 17, Clinton has three successful debates behind her, Trump’s nasty behavior with women is on garish display, and the polls are looking really good for Hillary. In the wake of the Access Hollywood tapes, Michelle Obama’s gripping description of Trump’s behavior having “shaken her to her core,” and accusations piling up from women who claimed to have actually been groped by Trump, Nate Silver’s “election update” reports that with three weeks to go, Hillary Clinton has a “significant lead” of 6-7 points and an 86% chance of winning the election.
On October 27, the headlines exploded with news of the WikiLeaks emails concerning the Clinton Foundation, and Trump and cronies are full of fresh outrage.
Putin clearly was watching, and knew exactly what he was doing.
Susan Bordo’s book, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, will be published in March by Melville House Press.
 All of us, too, have surely found ourselves in situations where saying exactly what we think would sacrifice the goals we are fighting for. In fact, I think this is the correct way to understand any shmoozy or complimentary comments she made to Wall Street in her speeches. But of course, no commentator made this argument.