One year ago tonight, history was made. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to become the 45th President of the United States.
I was going to post this right around the time that the hysteria over the alleged cooperation between President Trump and the Russians in Trump’s election victory came to a climax when a special counsel was appointed by the Justice Department to investigate the matter. More and more tension had been building as Democrats and media voices pushed the narrative that Trump’s ties with Russia were not only deep, but criminal in nature.
When Trump goes to kiss Putin’s ring at the G20 meeting, maybe he should just return to Russia w/ him & their favorite amb. Sergey Kislyak.
— Maxine Waters (@MaxineWaters) June 29, 2017
Since the special counsel was announced, however, the flow of Trump-Russia stories has slowed somewhat. Why is this? Probably because, as some may put the mind-numbing cliche, it’s a big “nothing burger”. Nevertheless, it is worth reviewing the single biggest news item from the past half-year for what it’s worth.
Stepping back from the matter and looking at it broadly, here are the top reasons why the alleged Trump-Russia conspiracy is not only silly, but downright ludicrous.
No direct evidence of Trump-Russian cooperation has been produced
Trump has now been in office for six months. He was elected President less than three months before that, and he launched his presidential campaign in June 2015. This means that for almost the past two years, he has been under intense scrutiny by the news media and possibly government agencies. Of course, he was a widely-known public figure well before that, going back to the 1980s. Could he have secretly conspired with Putin at some point over the past three decades without anyone on the outside ever knowing about it?
There are currently several official ongoing investigations that may cover Trump ties to Russia: investigations by the Justice Department, Senate and House Intelligence Committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Added to that are scores of media “investigations” by the most powerful names in news today.
To believe that Trump and Russia conspired together to throw the election, we would have to believe that Trump or his team were able to fly under the radar for years while running for president, which is the single most media-intensive event on the planet.
Allegations of Trump-Russia collaboration fit the formula of a conspiracy theory
Scientific American lists ten characteristics of a conspiracy theory. Although almost all of them apply to the Trump-Russia story, I have included just a few here:
Proof of the conspiracy supposedly emerges from a pattern of “connecting the dots” between events that need not be causally connected. When no evidence supports these connections except the allegation of the conspiracy or when the evidence fits equally well to other causal connections—or to randomness—the conspiracy theory is likely to be false.
Because proof of an actual Trump-Russia connection has not been shown, Democrats and mainstream media pundits can only discuss these “dots” and ways that they could be connected.
The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy would need nearly superhuman power to pull it off. People are usually not nearly so powerful as we think they are.
This relates to the point made above that Trump and his associates would have had to evade detection from the most powerful government on earth, as well as the most hyped media event ever. Trump’s detractors, however, frequently comment on the lack of Trump’s intelligence, which suggests that Trump would be incapable of pulling off such a charade.
The conspiracy encompasses a grand ambition for control over a nation, economy or political system. If it suggests world domination, the theory is even less likely to be true.
There may be no greater way to dominate the world than by becoming President of the United States of America.
The conspiracy theory assigns portentous, sinister meanings to what are most likely innocuous, insignificant events.
Trump officials communicating with Russia, one of the most powerful countries in the world? While this would typically be a normal event for new administrations, the mainstream media has focused intently on various meetings or communications between Trump or his associates and people related to Russia.
Leaks flow out of the White House with ease, but leaks that actually directly connect Trump to the Russians do not
The Trump White House has an obvious problem with leaks and it cannot control them. Not only do these leaks continue to fuel the Trump-Russia issue drop-by-drop, but they also seem terribly damaging for Trump in his drive to focus on his agenda. What they have not done, however, is provide actual evidence that Trump collaborated with Russia to manipulate the 2016 election. This is a very curious omission.
To believe that there was (or is) a Trump-Russia conspiracy, we would have to believe that Trump can control harmful leaks that show actual wrongdoing but not of the many harmful leaks that reveal information that is merely embarrassing or circumstantial in nature.
No clear motive has been produced for how this would benefit the Russians (or Trump)
One of the great mysteries of the Trump-Russia conspiracy is motive. How would Trump’s election benefit the Russians, or Trump himself? Certainly, such an arrangement (if true) would need to be mutually beneficial to work, and it would be of utmost importance. However, we rarely hear of any anti-Trump speakers even attempt provide clear or credible evidence about motives.
The New York Times gave several possible motives for Trump’s attitude toward Russia, but some or all of these seemed pretty speculative.
Let’s speculate at a general level that Putin made a deal with Trump; in exchange for rigging voting machines used for the election and thereby tipping the vote in favor of Trump, Putin would get something in return, such as favorable status when it came to U.S. foreign relations. This would require, of course, that Trump would be willing to break the law in order to get elected, that he would be willing to turn on the Americans he wants to serve as POTUS, and that he would be willing to hold Russian interests above American ones.
But how would Putin ever enforce the bargain? Let’s say that Putin blackmails Trump by threatening to release details of the arrangement if Trump reneges on the deal. If that were the case, then Putin could blackmail Trump in any way he desired, and we would surely see the effects of that within U.S. foreign policy. So far, however, we have not. In fact, we have seen Trump make moves that are contrary to Russian foreign policy. How exactly is the conspiracy theorist to rationalize this?
Allegations that “Russia hacked the election” are couched in overly-broad terms
What does it mean that “Russia hacked the election”? The next time you hear an anti-Trump speaker make such a statement, pay attention to whether that phrase is explained in more detail. It could mean several things, such as:
- Russians entered DNC computer systems, retrieved emails, and gave them to Wikileaks with the hope that they would be published and embarrass the Democrats, and thereby cause voters to dislike Clinton and not vote for her
- Russians entered John Podesta’s email account, retrieved emails, and gave them to Wikileaks with the hope that they would be published and embarrass the Democrats, and thereby cause voters to dislike Clinton and not vote for her
- Russians attempted to compromise U.S. voting machines and manipulated voting tallies which resulted in Trump receiving more votes, or Clinton receiving fewer votes, than voters actually cast for either candidate
- Russians actually did compromise U.S. voting machines and manipulated voting tallies which resulted in Trump receiving more votes, or Clinton receiving fewer votes, than voters actually cast for either candidate
The first two possibilities, while sinister, are quite a bit different from the third or fourth possibilities.
The first two involve meddling in an election via attempts to persuade with information. In other words, the assumption is that embarrassing material will cause people to dislike a candidate enough that he or she will simply vote for the competitor. Attempts to persuade with information happen all the time, but the voter has the freedom to accept or reject that information. In the case of the DNC and Podesta emails, the fact that the information was damaging to Democrats was because Democrats are the ones who said or did damaging things. Nobody forced Hillary or the Democrats to say the things they did (e.g. “You Need Both A Public And A Private Position”, “Needy Latinos”, etc.), but they chose to do so.
Nevertheless, there does not seem to be any evidence whatsoever that the information from these leaked emails persuaded any voter to vote for Trump rather than Clinton.
The third and fourth possibilities of modifying U.S. voting machines are entirely different animals. Actually compromising a vote could resulting in the election of a candidate who did not actually receive the most votes, which is a significant threat to a democracy. But do we know if the Russians attempted this, or were successful at doing so? In early June, a story came out which indicated that the Russians did attempt to do this in some way through a “spear-phishing” campaign, but “[i]ntelligence agency leaders say that Russia’s attacks did not change any actual votes in the 2016 race…”.
The conclusion to be drawn from the phrase “Russia hacked the election” is that the phrase itself is false. Yes, Russia appears to have hacked party email systems, but this is not “hacking an election” in any sense. And yes, Russia attempted to hack into voting machines, but no votes were changed because of it. Attempts at hacking aren’t the same as actually hacking, unless you’re playing loose with the meaning of words.
What the Trump-Russia conspiracy theory is really about
In July of 2016, CNN published an article, Who wins if Vladimir Putin meddles in the U.S. election? At that point in the race, Clinton was still favored to beat Trump, so it reflects a more even-headed analysis of the DNC email leaks. The key points from the article are that Putin had been interested in disrupting the U.S. election, Putin disliked Clinton because he claimed she interfered with Russian politics in 2011, and that his main goal of interference would be cause chaos to the American system:
Undercutting America’s political system and thereby impeaching its ability to judge others would further that goal in Russian eyes.“It is very consistent with a Russian approach,” said Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution, who co-authored the book “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.”“The whole purpose of Russian propaganda is to show that the U.S. and U.S. politics is filled with hubris and hypocrisy and to show it is not better than anyone else,” Hill said. “Putin operates like a super PAC, taking advantage of opportunities for negative campaigning. The purpose is to show that the U.S. has no moral authority.”
If Putin did try to interfere along these lines, then it would have been done so regardless of Trump. Perhaps Putin would win with a Trump victory because it would mean Clinton would lose, but does nothing to show that Trump acted in coordination with Russia, much less that he would bow down to the Kremlin after being elected.
Why, then, has the Trump-Russia issue dominated news coverage for the past six months? Take a look at mentions of Trump and Russia:
As you can see from this chart, the very first mention of Trump and Russia of any kind was in 2015 shortly after Trump entered the race, but all of these appear to focus on Trump’s policies and comments about Russia (interestingly, during this time Trump thought the Russians were probably to blame for the downing of a Malaysian Airlines flight in 2014). Things really start to heat up with Trump-Russia references around the time of the election, before skyrocketing soon thereafter.
My unproven speculation about all of this is relatively simple. Trump’s election was the single greatest political upset in modern American history (perhaps all of American history), and it came as a surprise to many. Clinton had an entrenched political machine and was being passed the baton by President Obama, the beloved starchild of the American mainstream media. Not only was she facing an opponent with no prior political experience, but she was facing someone who made some of the biggest gaffes of any candidate ever.
Her loss in the election was complicated by Democratic losses in other races:
Not only did the Democrats miss their opportunity to control the Executive Branch, but they also lost their opportunity to control the Legislative Branch. Going forward, Republicans will have a slight lead in the Senate and a more comfortable, 46-person advantage in the House of Representatives.
But perhaps even more striking about Republican control is at the state level, where they now control governorships in 33 states (up from 31), and state legislatures in 32 states. It total, 919 state seats were lost by the Democrats in this election.
With the Democratic power eviscerated, no chance to get an immediate liberal Supreme Court Justice pick, and facing several years without control, the Democrats had to do something. At some point after the election, the decision was made to run with the Trump-Russia story. This could accomplish three things. First, it would give a rational explanation for the election results. Voters didn’t really vote for Trump over Hillary because they thought he was the better candidate, but instead because of trickery, or else because their votes were changed. Second, it would create enough opposition to Trump on the part of politicians, and perhaps the public in general, that he would not be able to advance his political agenda. Third – and this is the granddaddy of them all – they might be able to impeach Trump and remove him from office, and thereby do something that they couldn’t do at the ballot box.
I don’t think that all three of these were recognized at the same time, but as the Trump-Russia story started to gain traction, they all seemed like viable reasons for continuing to pursue the matter. It does not seem that the reason for pursuing it was to actually catch a criminal mastermind who conspired with a foreign government to become an unlawfully-elected president, even though that should really be the top reason for doing so.
I think that Democrats also found inspiration from what they already knew during the campaign; it is easy to prod Trump into giving a crazy response if you press his buttons. Hammer away at him enough, and he can be his own worst enemy through his tweets or other responses. If the investigations didn’t uncover actual substance that took Trump down, then the process would.
As I mentioned at the beginning, coverage of the Trump-Russia conspiracy seems to have decreased a bit recently. I suspect there will be a few revivals of it when the official investigations wrap up and we gain more information. In the end, however, I expect to learn details of what we knew all long: there never was any Trump-Russia conspiracy to manipulate the election, and it was simply an attempt to undo what the voters did in November of 2016.