What if we've gotten the Russia election meddling story all wrong from the very start? What if Russia's real aim wasn't to help elect President Trump, but to hurt President Hillary Clinton?
Monday's release of a leaked NSA report on Russia's hacking operation seems to indicate that the Kremlin's real aim wasn't to help Trump win, but rather to encourage him to claim the election was rigged once he lost.
And before the vote, it wasn't exactly difficult to convince then-candidate Trump that the electoral process would be rigged against him. He first started floating the idea that Clinton would conspire with President Obama and the Democratic Party to fix the election back in early August.
This, of course, prompted widespread condemnation and a mocking, incredulous response from President Obama, who said that "if Mr. Trump is suggesting that there is a conspiracy theory that is being propagated across the country, including in places like Texas where typically it's not Democrats who are in charge of voting booths, that's ridiculous. That doesn't make any sense and I don't think anybody would take that seriously."
"Of course the election won't be rigged," he said. "What does that mean?"
Trump never really specified, but continued expressing his fears about a rigged election throughout the early fall. In fact, his claims prompted questions in two different presidential debates about whether he would accept the results of the election (assuming, as everyone did at the time, that he would lose).
Once again, President Obama assured Trump (and the American people) that it was impossible to rig an election and that maintaining faith in America's electoral process was of tantamount importance to the institution of American government itself:
I have never seen, in my lifetime or in modern political history, any presidential candidate trying to discredit the elections and the election process before votes have even taken place.
It's unprecedented. It happens to be based on no facts; every expert, regardless of political party, regardless of ideology, conservative or liberal, who has ever examined these issues in a serious way, will tell you that instances of significant voter fraud are not to be found, that -- keep in mind, elections are run by state and local officials, which means that there are places like Florida, for example, where you've got a Republican governor, whose Republican appointees are going to running and monitoring a whole bunch of these election sites.
The notion that somehow if Mr. Trump loses Florida, it's because of those people that you have to watch out for, that is both irresponsible and, by the way, doesn't really show the kind of leadership and toughness that you want out of a president.
Why exactly did Trump become so paranoid about a rigged election late in the election? The conventional wisdom was that he was being a preemptive sore loser; knowing that he couldn't beat Clinton, he was already starting to make excuses. But a closer look at the timing of his most public complaints reveals that he at least had some rational basis for his fears.
Just nine days before Trump's first gripe about a rigged election on August 1st, Wikileaks published 19,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee that showed how the Democratic Party essentially rigged its presidential primary in favor of Clinton. As The Washington Post reported:
Many of the most damaging emails suggest the committee was actively trying to undermine Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign. Basically, all of these examples came late in the primary—after Hillary Clinton was clearly headed for victory—but they belie the national party committee's stated neutrality in the race even at that late stage.
In other words, the emails showed that the DNC--the organization in charge of the primary election--had stacked the deck for Clinton and against Sanders.
If that happened during the primary, Trump likely figured, why couldn't it happen during the general election? The seed of doubt was planted in his mind, and in germinated into the belief that if he lost, Democrat dirty tricks would be to blame.
And where exactly did Wikileaks get the emails that led to this conspiratorial thinking? From, U.S. intelligence now knows, a Russian government hacking operation.
Moreover, after Monday's release of the NSA report showing just how detailed that operation was, the public now knows that Russia attempted to hack into a company that contracts with state and local election officials:
Specifically, operatives from the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, are said to have targeted employees at a US election software company last August and then again in October.
While the name of the company is unclear, the report refers to an undisclosed product made by VR Systems — an electronic voting services and equipment vendor in Florida that has contracts in eight states, including New York.
The hackers were given a “cyber espionage mandate specifically directed at U.S. and foreign elections,” the report says.
Assuming that the company that was targeted was indeed VR Systems, it would appear that the hackers were not attempting to change vote totals or tamper with actual election results because VR Systems does not manufacture voting machines. Rather, it makes a computerized poll books--lists of the names and addresses of registered voters. As Bloomberg News reports:
By messing with such a system, hackers could produce confusion, making it difficult for voter names to be verified. They could even enable ineligible people to vote -- but for such a ploy to work, there would need to be large numbers of such ineligible people available for a massive fraud operation on voting day.
There obviously weren't, as Russia did not send a veritable army of undercover agents to nine different states to pose as eligible voters and fraudulently cast ballots. Such a scheme, the Obama White House, the Clinton campaign, and election experts all repeatedly said, would be next to impossible.
So what were the Russians doing? The NSA report concludes that they were intent on “mimicking a legitimate absentee ballot-related service provider.” Why? It appears that once again, they were attempting to fuel Trump's claims about a conspiracy that would cost him the election.
Trump talked often about vote fraud (so much so that even after he won claimed millions of people voted illegally), so it wouldn't have been too difficult to convince him that someone (most likely the Democrats) had messed with the voter rolls and allowed ineligible people to cast ballots for Clinton.
Was this the Russians' plan all along? To foment chaos surrounding and undermine American confidence in the election by convincing the losing candidate (Trump) and his supporters that Clinton only won because of massive fraud?
Consider the timing of the hacks: The NSA report concludes that one spear-phishing attack was conducted in August--shortly after Trump first raised the notion of a rigged election--and again in late October or early November--shortly after Trump's refusal to say that he would accept the election results became a scandal. Were the Russians actually trying to push this conspiratorial thinking along?
Shortly after the first presidential debate, during which Trump was first asked about accepting the results of the election, Wikileaks published hacked emails from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta.
Once again, Russian hackers were responsible for providing Wikileaks with the material, which they obtained using a remarkably similar spear-phishing scheme to the one used on both the DNC and voting system contractors. And once again, those emails showed how the Democratic Party (and even members of the national news media) actively colluded with the Clinton campaign. Dozens of notable media figures attended dinners with key campaign figures. Reporters submitted stories about Clinton for approval before publishing them. And, perhaps most significantly, CNN moderator Donna Brazile fed questions to Clinton's team ahead of a primary debate against Sanders.
Once again, these emails showed the Democrats and Clinton working together (along with the news media) to in effect rig an election.
Though the emails were released in October, the hack occurred in March--and the timing of this is also key because it tends to demonstrate that the Russians were not acting to help Trump, but rather to either disrupt the election generally or to hurt the candidate whom they believed was most likely to become the next President of the United States: Hillary Clinton.
In March, Trump's nomination as the Republican Party's presidential candidate was very much in doubt. Not only was Ted Cruz polling very strongly in the upcoming Wisconsin Primary (a race he would go on to win), but the Republican Party itself was openly discussing ways to ensure that Trump would not clinch the nomination.
How, then, could the Russians be actively working to ensure his election by hacking emails from an opponent that they couldn't know Trump would even end up facing. Moreover, U.S. intelligence reveals that Russian hackers also attempted to hack the Republican National Committee, but were unsuccessful. If they were really trying to help the Republican candidate, why would they attack his party's email server?
They wouldn't, unless of course they weren't really trying to help Trump, but rather hurt America by hurting its faith in its democratic process and cast doubt on the candidate that Russia was certain was going to win: Clinton.
By early August and throughout the early fall, no one in the world believed Trump was going to win--not even Trump himself, if his election rigging talk was any indication. Once a 2005 audio tape of Trump discussing groping women was released (just hours before Wikileaks started publishing the Podesta emails), Trump's candidacy was seen as over, so much so that there was widespread speculation in the media that Trump might even drop out of the race.
The Russians clearly did not think Trump was going to win, so why did they continue to try to hack voter roll systems? So that Trump would continue to claim the election was rigged after he lost.
This would serve a dual purpose of weakening America generally since its presidential elections (the model of the free world) would no longer be trusted and also weakening the new President Clinton by casting doubt on the legitimacy of her victory.
The NSA report sheds light on this operation--a Russian conspiracy designed not to help President Trump, but to hurt President Clinton.