Interference In The Election – But Not By Russia

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The news cycle has been dominated in recent days by the accusations by the Obama Administration that Russia has interfered in the 2016 presidential election by hacking emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairperson, John Podesta. According to CNN, President Obama took the first steps in sanctioning Russia for their alleged interference by expelling 35 Russian diplomats, accused of being involved in the hacks, giving them and their families 72 hours to vacate the country, and closing two Russian diplomatic compounds.

Back in November, CNN reported that the U.S. intelligence community had determined that Russia was behind these two hacks, as well as the FBI concluding that several conservative groups and pundits were also hacked this election cycle, but could not verify that the Republican National Committee itself was hacked.

This overlooked fact should cast doubt on any partisan nature of the hacking, despite the leaks being one-sided. While leaks showed the Democratic Party working actively to keep Sanders from winning the nomination, the Republican Party had been public about their opposition to Trump from the beginning and still made him their candidate despite that. It is very possible that there was no malfeasance similar to the Democrats to leak.

Russia, Russia, Russia!

The evidence of Russia hacking the emails provided to the public has been thoroughly debunked by Sam Biddle of The Intercept. The evidence has come primarily from groups hired by the DNC who have reason to come to conclusions that the DNC desired, which explains some sloppy work that led to those conclusions. Biddle does not conclude that Russia absolutely was not behind the hacks, but rather simply finds the evidence lacking and demands sufficient evidence if we are to believe the government. On Thursday, Biddle followed up with an article about how Edward Snowden, who had previously told Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept, that if Russia had done the hack, then the NSA would know, released a new top secret document which shows how they would know. The NSA was not willing to provide the necessary signal interception (SIGINT) information that would show they had this evidence to pin the alleged interference in the election on Russia.

Russia may be responsible for the hacks; or perhaps they may simply be opportune scapegoats to deflect from the corruption in the Democratic Party. It seems wildly inappropriate to call these leaks interference in the election whether or not they are the work of Russia, whether or not they were done intending a specific result in the election. Vital information which American voters need was investigated then provided to those same voters. The first leaks, from the DNC, were provided in time for Democratic Convention superdelegates to be able to rightfully change their votes and nominate Bernie Sanders at the top of the Democratic ticket. The following leaks, from the emails of John Podesta, were given gradually and in time for Americans who supposedly support liberal ideas to be able to rally around an actual liberal like Jill Stein, who was on enough ballots to win in the Electoral College.

Vladimir Putin sitting
Vladimir Putin still denies Russia was involved in the hacks [Image by Adam Berry/Getty Images]Featured image credit: Adam BerryGetty Images

It is not considered to be interfering in the election when The Guardian, a British media outlet, reports on the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl by Donald Trump. That is normal participation in the election. While foreign nationals, who lack dual citizenship, are not supposed to be voting in elections, we normally have no issue with their participation by giving their opinions and analysis and other participation in journalistic endeavors. After all, our Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech not only for U.S. citizens, but for everyone in general.

It may even be argued that, given the fact that Obama was not acting on alleged hacking by Russia, but rather the alleged leaking, the expulsion of Russian diplomats was an unconstitutional act. Hacking is illegal and not constitutionally protected, but the propagation of that information was an act of free speech.

We should be thanking whoever did leak these documents, not being upset about them “interfering” in our election. However, the greatest interference in this election was undoubtedly not by Russia, but other actors. Most of these actors are in the United States and much of what we know of this interference we know because of these hacks.

Clinton Media Collusion

Glenn Greenwald and Lee Fang of The Intercept have reported extensively on the collusion between prominent media figures and the Clinton Campaign. Stories have been placed by the campaign with some of these media figures, some were working as surrogates (i.e. paid) without identifying themselves as such, including paid personalities such as Donna Brazile, not just those making the punditry circuit. An off-the-record gala was hosted prior to Hillary’s formal announcement which garnered 38 RSVPs and only 12 regrets. The authors conclude by noting that much of the interference here is standard, which is a bit more bone-chilling than normal.

“It seems wildly inappropriate to call these leaks interference in the election whether or not they are the work of Russia, whether or not they were done intending a specific result in the election.”

However, the issues do not stop there. Media also openly reached out to the Clinton campaign, such as Politico senior staff writer Glenn Thrush seeking approval from Podesta for his coverage in an April 30, 2015, email leaked by WikiLeaks. However, some of the emails that have been cited on this issue as proof of interference in the election have been misleading. For example, an April 21, 2015, email appears to be sent by the New York Times at an oddly official address as a first draft looking for approval, but turns out to be an article from a column called First Draft published on the same day. This subscription email was listed by some smaller outlets, such as Activist Post, as if it was such a request for approval.

Donna Brazile, who was working for CNN at the time, also decided to interfere on Hillary’s behalf in the Democratic primary election. WikiLeaks leaked an email on March 12, 2016, from her, during the Democratic primaries, included a question about capital punishment, later asked in CNN’s April 14 debate, which Brazile expressed her concern about Hillary’s potential answer to the question. CNN later published an article explaining her wrongdoing, pointing to other emails indicating that she sent more than that single question, and that she resigned, preempting a firing.

DNC Interim chair Donna Brazile at the Democratic National Convetion
DNC Interim Chair Donna Brazile leaked debate questions to the Clinton Campaign which ultimately led to her departure from CNN. [Image by Alex Wong/Getty Images]Featured image credit: Alex WongGetty Images

The Rise of Donald Trump

Much was made in the Republican primary election of Donald Trump’s relationship with the Clintons. The Miami Herald reported in 2015 that Carlos Curbelo, a Republican congressman, had made an issue of the friendship, the Clintons attending Trump’s wedding, and suggested a Democratic plot in his candidacy. Newsweek covered the friendship in more detail in May, citing that Donald and Bill are officially distanced due to the election, despite being close friends prior. CNN covered the release of some pictures of the friendship in September. The Daily Beast, of which is owned by IAC, a company whose board includes Chelsea Clinton, even reported on how both men had attended the same underage sex parties hosted by billionaire Jeffery Epstein. Politico also reported in September how Chelsea Clinton and Ivanka Trump, daughter of Donald, have a similar friendship.

This friendship is no more reliable information about interference in the election than the information made public about Russia allegedly hacking Podesta and the DNC – it is circumstantial. However, it provides context for actual evidence of interference that has come to light. Hillary Clinton is responsible for Donald Trump’s rise, not Russia.

WikiLeaks leaked an April 23, 2015, email from Marissa Astor which included a PDF attachment outlining the strategy for Hillary’s campaign. Amongst the strategy is promoting “pied piper” candidates which included, but explicitly were not limited to, Donald Trump (announced his candidacy June 16, 2015), Ted Cruz (announced his candidacy March 23, 2015), and Ben Carson (announced his candidacy May 3, 2015). Much like the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin who led rodents to their death with music, promoting these candidates was supposed to cause interference in the Republican primary by driving the primary race to the right, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the eventual victor to move to the center in the general election.

According to the document, “We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously.” Of course, Hillary’s campaign had made sure to have influence with the media that no other candidate had anything approaching.

We have seen this piece of the election strategy come to fruition in the campaign. The Huffington Post reported on March 15 that all three major networks chose to air Trump’s empty podium rather than a speech being given by Bernie Sanders to a packed audience – a double win for Hillary. On that same day, they also reported that Donald Trump received almost $2 billion in free media – an amount which blew away the media coverage of his primary opponents. Allegedly, Russia has provided the smoking gun of this Clintonian interference in the election.

It makes sense that the Clinton campaign would know that Ted Cruz was in the race, as he already announced, and that Ben Carson would be in the race, as he was close to announcing and The Political Insider had mistakenly claimed he announced back on November 6, 2014, and that Donald Trump might be running, as the New York Post covered in May, 2015, that he had announced an exploratory committee on March 18 of that year but doubted, even then, that he would actually run. But the Clintons may have had more reason to believe that Trump would run in the election than the general public, because, according to the Washington Post, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump had discussed his potential bid by phone in late May and it is conceivable they may have had such discussions well before then.

Among the WikiLeaks trove was an November 20 email by Clinton campaign strategist Luke Albee, in which he suggested picking a fight with Trump in order to “cement his front runner status.” Indeed, she did pick that fight, on the very topic that dominated that email, Muslim registration, a key issue in the election, when her campaign published a piece just two weeks later entitled “No, Donald Trump. We’re not barring Muslims from entering the country.” Once again, we see the Clinton campaign interference in the Republican primary.

The Failed Fall of Trump

Likely, Trump’s success was supposed to end there – as far as either he or Hillary were concerned. Watching the first presidential debate in the general election, I couldn’t help but read in to the opening greetings between the two. The way they said they were happy to see one another seemed to be just another step in a conspiracy to coronate Hillary.

Trump seemed perfect to elect Hillary – he could keep the Republican ticket to the far right while Clinton could be happy to play her neoliberal, neoconservative self and he was scary enough to keep serious third party challenges from the left at bay. The election of Hillary Clinton seemed inevitable.

Clearly, based on the leaked emails, the intention did not seem to be to get Trump that far – I suspect the original plan would have been to get Trump to run as an independent in the general election and split the GOP vote. However, I was left a bit surprised when there wasn’t a mass of faithless electors switching from Trump to Hillary as a failsafe measure. Trump did not run his general campaign at all like someone who was trying to win the election.

Donald Trump giving a solemn look
Donald Trump, personal friend of the Clintons and named a Pied Piper candidate [Image by Drew Angerer/Getty Images]Featured image credit: Drew AngererGetty Images

His debate performances weren’t very well done, he was brutally beaten in fundraising, and how he spent what he did raise. A large portion of it was spent in Trump businesses, and he overpaid through the roof for this. According to Fortune, the rent he charged his campaign headquarters at the Trump Tower skyrocketed to 500 percent the previous rent once he started fundraising. His travel budget was much higher than other major party candidates have spent throughout an election and of course it’s through his airline. According to CNBC, he spent over $12 million total at his own companies throughout the election with $3 million of it in the final push, when he should have been trying to spend his money however it will gain him victory in the election. By the end of the election, according to Bloomberg, he spent less than half what Mitt Romney had spent in 2012 and an even greater margin of difference with Clinton. No, he didn’t fly back and forth from Russia. He even said he would merely “consider” taking office if he won.

These are not the actions of a man trying to win an election – these are the actions of a man trying to make a quick buck by embezzling from his own campaign.

The general pattern of major party candidates in elections is that they run to the extreme in the primary election, make a mad dash to the center in the general election, then try to move back a bit toward the extreme they started from once the election is over. That was not Trump’s path at all.

In the primaries he was relatively a bit more to the left socially – having made a publicity stunt out of having Caitlyn Jenner use the women’s room in the Trump Tower. However, come the general election, he courted the religious right vote and became strongly against LGBTQIA rights, as well as suddenly anti-abortion – some of the criticism of him during the primaries was that he was a pro-abortion Democrat previously. He wins the election anyway.

President-elect Trump, rather than moving further to the right after the election, decided instead that it was time to make a radical shift toward the center, relatively. Trump would cool his jets on anti-immigrant rhetoric, wasn’t going to make Mexico pay for a wall, and wasn’t going to have Hillary Clinton investigated, he finally denounced his white nationalist base that supposedly distanced him from moderate voters. Once again, this sounds more like someone who didn’t want to be president, but rather help his golf buddy’s wife take office.

There is plausible deniability, but it will take some solid evidence, perhaps leaks from his campaign, to convince me that Donald Trump did anything but fail at losing an election he didn’t want to win. I would even place a bet that the real Donald Trump is well to the left of Hillary, but now trapped in an alliance with several right wing forces afraid to fully out himself. But nothing says interference in an election like having a scarecrow candidate and nothing says failure like losing to your friend who is trying to let you win.

Move the Election

In another case of a direct attempt to interfere in the Republican primary election, the Clinton campaign tried to get the Illinois primary moved. A November 30, 2014, email by Robby Mook leaked by WikiLeaks holds the revelation.

“The overall goal is to move the IL primary out of mid March, where they are currently a lifeline to a moderate Republican candidate after the mostly southern Super Tuesday. IL was a key early win for Romney in 12.”

The planned interference in the election: promote the not-yet-named Pied Piper candidates by eliminating any moderate, more tolerable Republican candidates.

Rigging the Primary

The Democratic primary election was riddled with problems from the beginning. Bernie Sanders, who had a much larger name in politics and general name recognition than someone like Carly Fiorina or Ben Carson could not get any of the coverage they were getting. As the Clinton campaign managed to promote the Pied Piper candidates, they likely also convinced those same media outlets to not cover Bernie at all.

Bernie Sanders holding up his right arm in a sign of solidarity
Bernie Sanders was the first victim of interference in the election [Image by Alex Wong/Getty Images]Featured image credit: Alex WongGetty Images

As Bernie started gaining traction and could no longer be completely ignored, the fix was on. As the Washington Post reported, the DNC cut off Bernie Sanders’ campaign’s access to its own information following an event where a Bernie staffer wandered upon a glitch in the system, caused by a contractor, which allowed access to the Clinton campaign’s information. The staffer was later fired. Yahoo! reported that the staffer, Josh Uretsky, was recommended to the campaign by the DNC, which in the context we now have about the DNC and Sanders, suggests some very serious election interference. It is likely, but not proven, that Uretsky was planted by the DNC and told to access Hillary’s data at a predetermined time when the firewall was intentionally taken down in order to paralyze the Sanders campaign and get Hillary the nomination. Despite Uretsky being a Russian name, it certainly wasn’t Russian interference in the election here.

ABC News covered what they saw as the four most damaging leaks from the DNC leaks. The gist of these is that they did not want Bernie on the ticket and were brainstorming ways to make him lose. None of the specific ideas leaked seem to have been acted upon, but not all plans are handled via email. Hashed out in meetings, face-to-face, by phone, by video – there are many other ways things can be hashed out with less of a permanent record. The will, while not the gun, is still smoke.

Where lies fail, voter disenfranchisement works well. Never far behind the Republican Party in its never-ending trek to the right, accusations of voter fraud were rampant amidst the series of electoral irregularities that propped up in the primary elections. Voters were knocked off rolls without notice, other voters were given the wrong ballots and misinformed of their ability to vote at all, and all of this seemed to benefit Clinton. Counterpunch did an extensive series on the voter fraud accusations, debunking some while validating others, and while not all theories panned out, there certainly was interference in the election aimed at nominating Clinton.

Ecuadorian Interference

The notable foreign interference in the election came from Ecuador, which interfered in the name of not being accused of interference. Julian Assange’s internet connection was cut on October 16 to prevent him from leaking documents which shined light upon Hillary Clinton, at least from the Ecuadorian embassy in the United Kingdom’s internet connection. Of course, Assange is in the embassy under political asylum and would be immediately arrested and sent to the United States for trial if he left the embassy.

Ecuador was neutral prior to the action – no one saw Assange’s actions as being necessarily compliant with the aims of Ecuador. However, by attempting to prevent the people of the United States from being exposed to information vital to making an informed decision, Ecuador created its own interference in the 2016 election.

The Context of Interference

After reviewing all of the interference in the 2016 election not committed by Russia, but rather by other actors and primarily from the Clinton campaign, we really have to ask ourselves, as a country, what is more important. Do we get wrapped up in nationalist fervor and indignation that maybe, just maybe, Russia did something to help the United States’ people? That seems to be the direction we are heading in. Perhaps we should, instead, be focusing on the homegrown interference in the election where one candidate rigged two primaries and tried to rig a national election rather than that someone, perhaps Russia, exposed that electoral interference.

[Featured Image by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]