The rhetoric over Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 election is somehow becoming more hysterical. Russian “meddling” is out. Russian “information warfare” is in. Trump didn’t exercise bad judgment by sucking up to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. He committed treason, a felony punishable by death. John Podesta foolishly giving a Russian hacker his email password resulted in our generation’s Pearl Harbor. Informing voters about the content of Democratic National Committee emails ahead of an election is on par with terrorists murdering 3,000 Americans on 9/11.
Yes, Trump is feeding the frenzy with his unwillingness to clearly, consistently, and unequivocally back the U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia mounted an election interference campaign, and that Putin is personally responsible. But that doesn’t justify the wild exaggerations of the interference campaign’s success coming from the media.
Spinning a predictable interference campaign that had no measurable impact on the outcome of the election into a successful attempt to plant a Russian stooge in the White House by manipulating voters is not only dishonest, it helps Putin achieve one of his primary goals of sowing division and undermining faith in our democracy.
Here are some things we need to get straight about the impact of Putin’s interference campaign.
1. Russia Did Not Compromise the Vote Count
Intelligence agencies and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference, have repeatedly said that Russia did not tamper with a single ballot cast in the election or change the vote tallies. The assessment the director of national intelligence released in January said that although Russian operatives did gain access to state and local electoral boards, none of the systems they accessed were involved in tallying votes.
Mueller’s team also has found no evidence Russia affected the vote count, which he has made clear in two indictments. In a statement on the most recent indictment of 12 Russian operatives, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said: “There’s no allegation that the conspiracy changed the vote count or affected any election result.”
2. There Is No Evidence Russia Persuaded Anyone to Vote Differently
While it’s clear one of Russia’s meddling goals was to manipulate voters, there is no evidence they succeeded in changing the outcome of the election, or even persuaded a single voter to change his or her ballot. Aside from the stolen emails, which had a debatable impact, the influence campaign Russia orchestrated really didn’t amount to much.
The DNI assessment found Russia used state-run media outlets and social media trolls to push propaganda aimed at influencing voters, and congressional investigators later released examples of ads Russia purchased on Facebook and Google aimed at turning voters against Clinton. The media played up these revelations, in one case going so far as to harass an elderly woman on her front lawn because she unwittingly crossed paths with a Russian troll on Facebook. But again, there is no evidence any of these tactics had a measurable effect on the election result.
Google found Russia spent “tens of thousands of dollars” on ads, and Facebook revealed Russians spent about $100,000 on ads over a two-year period. These are minuscule expenditures, especially compared to what the Hillary and Trump campaigns dumped into political ads on Facebook — a combined $81 million.
Also, many of the ads weren’t exactly sophisticated. Here’s an example of the kind of content that allegedly swung the election:
3. The Email Theft Resulted in More-Informed Voters
While the propaganda campaign’s effect was likely negligible, the stolen emails certainly had more of an impact. Liberals might argue the emails cost Hillary the election by exposing that her nomination was rigged, thereby suppressing turnout, especially from Bernie Sanders supporters.
But even if this were true, her loss would be a consequence of voters having more information about the inner workings of the campaign — not misinformation. The emails were not doctored. Russia didn’t dupe or manipulate voters here, except to the extent that letting them see the truth is considered manipulation.
4. The Email Theft Did Not Require Sophisticated Abilities
Obviously, it’s still concerning that a foreign power stole emails. But again, this was not the result of a complicated hacking scheme. In fact, Hillary’s emails weren’t “hacked” at all. John Podesta was simply tricked into giving away his login information to the hackers. He opened the front door and they walked right in. In the case of the DNC, the hackers duped a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee staffer into providing her credentials, and they used that to access the DNC network.
5. There Is Zero Evidence Trump Is a Russian Puppet, or that Russia Can Blackmail Him
Journalists, federal investigators, Congress, and other motivated parties have been searching for more than two years now for evidence that Trump colluded with Russia to win the election, as well as evidence that Putin has compromising information on Trump he can use to blackmail him. Zero hard evidence has turned up so far to support either of these suspicions. Period.
The Mueller probe has not resulted in collusion-related charges for the campaign or Trump, more than a year into his investigation. In addition, the release of top secret warrant applications Saturday confirm that, to spy on the Trump campaign, the FBI relied heavily on completely unverified and now discredited opposition research paid for by Democrats and compiled by a Hillary supporter.
This salacious dossier on Trump put together by Christopher Steele was not substantiated when the FBI used it to obtain the spy warrants, and it is not substantiated now. Incredibly, we now know Steele leaked information to the press in an attempt to manipulate the election in Clinton’s favor, and that the FBI used that very press report to corroborate his dossier in all four of the warrant applications. These facts should call into question the judgment of the FBI and its basis for the investigation.
While it’s fair to ask why Trump was so obsequious in Helsinki, there simply isn’t any evidence Putin has the ability to blackmail him, or that he or his campaign worked with Russia to win the White House. These assertions are purely speculative.
6. Thousands of People Did Not Die
Post-Helsinki, it’s apparently in bounds to call Trump a traitor, and credible news outlets are putting the Russia influence campaign on par with Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Politico and The Washington Post recently ran stories pushing this outlandish narrative, equating the death of thousands of Americans to Russia trolling a few people on social media and tricking someone into giving up an email password.
A Politico article claims: “Piece by piece, name by name, one operational detail after the next, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has documented that the Russian attack on the American homeland and the American people was every inch as organized, expansive, penetrating and daring as that Japanese run on our fleet or bin Laden’s plan to use civilian airliners as weapons.”
Yes, the influence campaign targeted the heart of American democracy. But comparing it to Pearl Harbor — a surprise attack when more than 3,500 Americans were killed or wounded, and a significant number of battleships and aircraft destroyed — is absurd. Yes, Russia distributed stolen emails and tried to propagandize Americans on social media. But it’s ridiculous to compare this to the $10 billion in damages following 9/11, and the inestimable cost to hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost friends and loved ones. The Russians didn’t knock down any towers. No one went to a funeral. The Pentagon remains intact.
Here’s what did happen: Putin ordered an influence campaign that resulted in state-run media continuing to push propaganda, a few Facebook ads and memes aimed at influencing voters, and the release of private emails into the public sphere. None of this required sophisticated capabilities, and there is no evidence Russia successfully influenced a single voter, let alone influenced the outcome of the election.
Russia did not tamper with any ballots. There is no hard evidence the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. There is no evidence Russia has dirt on Trump. Americans were not physically harmed. None of this reason to panic. Or to declare war. Or to execute the president for treason.
The same people who are upset Trump made Putin look good at a press conference have spent two years now working the country into a panic by portraying him as an absolute mastermind capable of marring the integrity of our democracy. Talk about a win for Putin. Yes, Russia continues to pose a serious threat, but let’s not give Putin more credit than he is due.