Lincoln Mitchell

Political Development, Strategic Communication and Research

Lincoln Mitchell is a political development and strategic communications consultant as well as an accomplished scholar and writer. Mitchell has worked on political development in dozens of countries as well as on numerous domestic political campaigns. He has also published books, articles, opinion pieces and blogs on international relations, the former Soviet Union, democracy, US politics and baseball. 

Russia Made the Difference in the Election

The unclassified DNI report about Russia's role in the 2016 election that was released last week is a puzzling document. Much of it concerns the role of Kremlin backed television station RT America and includes assertions like, 

"RT aired a documentary about the Occupy Wall Street movement on 1, 2, and 4 November (2012). RT framed the movement as a fight against "the ruling class" and described the current US political system as corrupt and dominated by corporations. RT advertising for the documentary featured Occupy movement calls to "take back" the government."

While positions like that may cause rancor at conservative intelligence agencies, many Americans would see that as an important perspective on the USA and a reason why international opinions of our country can be important.

The more significant information in the report gets less attention, but still offers enough in depth analysis to make it clear that it is the view of the DNI that Moscow "aspired to help President-elect Trump's chances of victory." The report provides several examples of this, but among the most blatant is the claim that Russia's "General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) probably began cyber operations aimed at the US election by March 2016. We assess that the GRU operations resulted in the compromise of the personal e-mail accounts of Democratic Party officials and political figures. By May, the GRU had exfiltrated large volumes of data from the DNC."

There are two, and really only two, possible ways to interpret this report. The first is to question the veracity of the report. President-elect Trump has pursued this approach not least through reminding Americans of previous recent intelligence failures. The report, however, is reasonably thorough and is consistent with a great deal of publicly averrable information about Russian tactics and the recent election. It is possible, of course, that the report is fabricated or just plain wrong, but the evidence, and the careful language in the report itself strongly suggests that is not the case.

The other interpretation is that Russia's activities directly contributed to, and yes made the difference, in Donald Trump's victory. It is tempting to argue that the hacking occurred, but was not enough of a factor to change the outcome. This analysis allows Americans to avoid questioning the legitimacy of Trump's presidency, continue to focus on what we now know was a poorly thought through Democratic campaign and to move forward. It also may be impossible to prove that Russia's intervention was quite so critical, but it is impossible to prove almost anything involving the effects of campaigns on political outcomes. For example, there is no way to prove that any campaign commercials, speeches, field campaigns or media coverage were the difference between victory and defeat in any campaign.

It is not, however, plausible to suggest that Russia's intervention did not make the key difference. We know that the election as very close and that Trump beat Clinton by less than two percent in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If she had won any three of those states or even Florida and just one other, Clinton would have won the election. In a race that close there are innumerable variables that contributed to the outcome. This included things that had nothing to do with Russia, such as Clinton's poor use of strategic resources, her historically high negatives at the beginning of the race, Trump's deft handling of the media and ability to deflect attention away from his negatives and numerous other local and state specific issues. 

If any of those things had gone differently, Russia's intervention would not have been enough to make the difference, but that is not what happened. Instead what we know is that Russia's efforts to leak damaging information from the DNC, distracted the Democrats, drew media attention to a story that was bad for Clinton and reignited tension between Clinton and erstwhile supporters of Bernie Sanders that had largely gone away in the preceding months. That was enough to push Trump to victory. Putin did not create Trump; nor did he create a situation in the US where a candidate like Trump could get so much traction. Rather, in an election that was won on the margins, Russia was deeply and undeniably active in those margins; and that was enough to influence the outcome. That much should be clear to anybody who has spent time around campaigns, appreciates how close this race was or simply can do long division, or frankly, addition and subtraction.

Despite this, Donald Trump will be sworn in as President in less than a fortnight. There are no more revelations about Russia's role in this election that can change that. While more information may come out, the basic gist of the story is clear and the unwillingness of the Republican Party, who are the ones with power in Washington now to do anything about it is also apparent. Patriotic Americans should not forget this for one day, or even one hour, of Trump's presidency.

Photo: cc/ AJ Cann