Election Interference

A close friend with whom I have recently been having distinctly adversarial conversations and email exchanges on political topics wrote to me a couple of days ago, effectively daring me to deny that Russia’s interference in our most recent presidential contest had taken place (and, it was implicit, thereby cast a pall over the election’s legitimacy), and asking whether I think our government is doing enough to prevent such acts in the future (the implication being that the Trump Administration, being too friendly with Russia, is not). A longer version of my off-the-cuff email response is presented below:      

Of course the Russians interfered with our election – as they have been doing since the revolution. They are not our friends. They bought a few hundred thousand dollars’ worth of Facebook ads. Also, they almost certainly fed the “dossier” misinformation to Glenn Simpson in order to make Trump look bad. They may well have done lots of other “dirty tricks” that we don’t know about and they gave a fortune to the Clinton Foundation, presumably to get on the good side of the candidate almost everybody thought would win.     

After the election, when the Democrats were trying to explain their unexpected loss, the misinformation that had been fed to Fusion GPS (and paid for by the DNC) became the political excuse for the worries about collusion that were the justification for the Mueller probe. In planting that misinformation during the campaign the Russians had presumably been trying to foment trouble for us – and after the election the lies they told Simpson, which even he won’t say he can vouch for, did that in spades.

The larger point about whether we should think of Trump’s election as having been legitimate is that the Russians’ interference was of the “dirty tricks” variety with Simpson and their ads were peanuts. In other words, it wasn’t direct in the sense of tampering with our voting machines. It also had no meaningful effect on the election’s results – it bore fruit only afterward in the sense of having very successfully tainted the election in the eyes of people like my friend. In that, the Russians have had the unwitting support of most major US media, who will cheer for any idea that discredits Trump.

It’s also worth noting that our government routinely “interferes” in other countries’ elections (e.g., when he was in office Obama practically endorsed Netanyahu’s opponent) and that many other countries try to influence ours. Obama took millions in illegal overseas campaign donations (and paid the largest-ever fine to the FEC for having done so), and we can be sure that the Chinese are trying to influence us in a million ways, beginning with the China-funded “Confucius Institutes” on many college campuses. And let’s not forget that while Vice President Biden was singing China’s praises, that country was funding Hunter Biden’s private equity firm.

Even friendly countries try to influence our elections; indeed, there are indications that the governments of two of our closest allies – the UK and Australia – worked with our intelligence services to entrap George Papadopoulos, thereby doing their friends in the Obama Administration a favor by helping the Administration’s flunkies to justify their desire to spy on the hated Trump while avoiding the strictures of US law. There are many ways for one country to exert influence over another country’s elections or their leaders – illegal, barely legal and perfectly overt.    

Should we make it one of our top priorities to prevent such shenanigans by Russia in the future? Actually, no, in the sense that it can’t be done. Ours is still a relatively free and open society, and if somebody wants to buy some Facebook ads, feed misinformation to an idiot ex-spook, funnel illegal contributions through a rapper or make legal contributions to a candidate’s foundation or an investment in a leader’s son’s private equity fund they can almost certainly find ways to do that. The only way to stop it would be to become a closed society/police state and, no, I don’t want to go that way. I will say, though, that I think we should be more worried about Chinese attempts to spy on Americans and influence our politics than I am about the Russians’ ham-handed efforts. In human and economic terms, Russia is a small, if nasty, country, important only because of its nukes, its oil and its willingness to invade other countries; China is an assertive, dangerous rising power – a giant in human, economic and military terms.

And for what it’s worth, as to our election processes I think we should be equally or more upset about the way that American tech giants like Facebook and Google skewed searches to information favorable to Democrats and (in 2012) provided hugely valuable data to the Obama campaign – an unreported campaign contribution worth untold millions, than we are about the Russians’ malign efforts. The tech firms are more likely to have affected election results than the Russians. But in the end, I’m confident that the American public has made its decisions based on a million factors, and that even the tech companies were not as able to swing public opinion as easily as they thought they could.

I would feel very differently if some foreign power or tech company actually changed election results directly by, say, messing with vote tallies. They didn’t in this instance (the only ones who seem to have done that in a presidential election within living memory were Dick Daily’s Democrats in Chicago, 1960 – successfully, from their perspective). These would be terribly serious crimes if done by a US citizen, and acts of war if done by a foreign power.

And as to whether our government is working hard enough to prevent direct tampering and discourage indirect interference of the sort that happened this time, I really don’t know. That depends on what’s being said behind closed doors, and to whom. These are murky waters.

I am comfortable, though, that Trump is handling our relations with Russia well. What I see is that he’s trying to convince Putin that we don’t hate him or his people (I’m pretty sure that Trump knows that Putin is a viper, but what would be gained by telling him that?), while pursuing much, much tougher policies designed to minimize the harm that Russia can do than Obama or Hillary “re-set” Clinton ever did. His tougher policies include putting American troops into Poland and the Baltics, encouraging fracking – which harms Russia’s only valuable export other than weapons – twisting the Germans’ arms to try to get them to be less reliant on Russian energy and increase their defense spending and selling arms and (even, which I didn’t know until yesterday  https://www.wate.com/news/local-news/knoxville-based-army-national-guard-regiment-returns-from-ukraine/2003279408) rotating US troops through Ukraine.

There are – always – bad people out there doing things they shouldn’t, but I’m comfortable that our 2016 presidential election was legitimate and that President Trump is doing his best to protect our nation’s interests against foreign malefactors. I would be much happier if he paid more attention to our looming fiscal problems, but that’s another matter.

M.H. Johnston

One comment to Election Interference

  • John Primm, MPM  says:

    Logical and well presented. Oh and true as well. Keep fighting the good fight Mark. Sadly we as a society have fallen so far from reasoned discussion that many with great influence and large audience will do and say anything to wound our nation.

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