The Russian intelligence operation against American democracy was a winning proposition for Vladimir Putin.
By (left-to-right) Alex Finley, John Sipher, and Asha Rangappa, J.D. / 09.21.2018
Finley: Former Officer, CIA’s Directorate of Operations
Sipher: Former Officer, CIA’s National Clandestine Service
Rangappa: Senior Lecturer in Global Affairs, Yale University
The GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee launched its 11th investigation into President Hillary Clinton’s ties to the Uranium One scandal, while the Republican leader of the House Intelligence Committee grilled FBI director James Comey over that agency’s counterintelligence probe into Russia’s actions in the 2016 presidential election, suggesting it was corrupted by politics. Meanwhile, republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have begun drawing up articles of impeachment against President Clinton. Former presidential candidate Donald Trump weighed in from his newly launched TRUMP TV platform, still insisting the election was rigged and that the FBI and Clinton must be held accountable. Meanwhile, an alt-right march turned deadly after Clinton supporters—encouraged and organized by a fake Facebook group created by Russia—arrived at the same location to protest the march.
Welcome to an alternate world in which Hillary Clinton won the presidency. This is how the headlines might have read had the 2016 presidential election unfolded as Russia, and most of the world, had figured it would. Chaos. Disruption. Disinformation. Political stalemate. No matter who won the election, the Russian intelligence operation against American democracy was a winning proposition for Vladimir Putin.
Looking back at the presidential election based on what we know now, it’s tempting to view Trump’s win as a foregone conclusion, one that was perhaps masterminded by Russia years in advance. It’s true that Russia had been assessing and likely cultivating Trump long before he ran for office. But in evaluating Trump’s bizarre bromance with Putin, it’s important to remember that until the very final stretch of the campaign, neither of them thought Trump would actually win. In fact, any bargain struck between Trump and Putin, or his proxies, during the election would have been based on the probability that Clinton would win: the fact that she didn’t has been a victory beyond Putin’s imagination, and has almost certainly left Trump more beholden to Putin than he would have been otherwise.
Given Putin’s overall objective of sowing discord in the U.S. by driving an even deeper wedge in our already existent social and cultural divisions, the outcome of the election would have mattered little to him. A Clinton presidency could have still provided an environment that was ripe for exploitation. In fact, it might have been even easier to exploit, and Trump would have been a perfect post-election tool. Putin never wanted to use Trump because he respects or loves the man. Putin wanted to use Trump because Trump causes chaos.
It wouldn’t have taken a lot of foresight to have noticed a few years ago that Trump would make a great disruptor. While Trump has always been an outspoken provocateur, his potential for disruption became abundantly clear during the Obama administration. Even before Trump traveled to Russia to put on the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, he began questioning the legitimacy of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. It’s worth noting that Trump’s “birther” conspiracy echoed the Russian playbook in other elections – for example, the fake social media conspiracies that questioned the “authenticity” of Ukrainian presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko (who happens to be the longtime political rival of Paul Manafort’s previous top Ukrainian client: Victor Yanukovych) in 2014. The similarity in tactics might be coincidence, but Trump’s embrace of “birtherism” – and the traction it gained in mainstream American politics – demonstrated to Putin that Trump was willing to promote fringe conspiracies and polarize political discussion.
Also noteworthy, in the months leading up to November 2016, were rumors that Trump had plans to launch a “mini media conglomerate” following the election, presumably on the assumption that he was not going to win. This idea was being discussed by the Trump team even as late as October 2016, according to the New York Times. Notably, the biggest hurdle to creating a media empire that could compete with existing networks was that it would require a large cash investment. (In retrospect, Trump may have had particular investors in mind.)
Having Trump at the helm of a media network, if not the presidency, would have still been a (proverbial) coup for Putin. The Russian government would have loved having a Trump media platform contribute to its efforts to delegitimize a Clinton presidency and the U.S. democratic system. Trump certainly would have obliged, pushing Russia’s agenda of creating chaos and dividing American society, partly out of pride (insisting he lost only because the election was “rigged”), and partly because of the clear financial incentives.
A TV network would have also offered Trump a megaphone to promote the narrative he pushed throughout the campaign: For example, his repeated calls for Clinton to be “locked up,” (yet another echo, this time verbatim, of the Putin-backed candidate who ran against Tymoshenko in the 2014 Ukrainian election). These calls for Clinton’s incarceration appear, in retrospect, to be Trump setting the stage to attack her from the sidelines after he lost.
And here’s the kicker: The screams of a “rigged” election and “lock her up” would have had more weight if Trump had lost. Trump’s claims of a mobbed-up election system against a corrupt candidate who got away with her crimes and, in which millions of undocumented immigrants illegally voted, would have resonated with a wider swathe of conservatives had he been able to position himself as the candidate who had an election “stolen” from him. Had Clinton won, would there be even more people willing to believe that she was trafficking children through a Washington, D.C. pizza joint?
The openness with which Russia conducted its active measures also makes more sense when viewed through the lens that they believed Trump would lose. Russia’s intelligence services know that countering their efforts is one of the FBI’s top counterintelligence priorities. They also know that the FBI had a checkered past in the 1960s and 1970s when it came to counterintelligence and political activity in the U.S. Luring the FBI into a politically explosive investigation during a hotly contested national election — one that was bound to become public — was a sure-fire recipe for scandal. Further, had Trump lost, the accusations he has hurled against the FBI and the Obama administration – that they were out to destroy Trump’s candidacy and “spy” on his campaign to undermine it – would have had a more plausible anchor in reality. In fact, every new fact the FBI turned up about possible collusion between Trump and Russia could have been weaponized as more evidence that Clinton had won by politicizing law enforcement against her opponent. Today, when Trump tries to spin the facts to suit his interests, he and his supporters overlook one glaring truth that doesn’t fit their narrative: Clinton lost. Had she won, their story would fit together better.
A Clinton win would have also made it easier to discredit — and potentially quash — the investigation into Russian interference, as long as Republicans still maintained congressional control after the election. Presumably, the Justice Department under a President Clinton would never need to appoint a special counsel to investigate the matter, since the attorney general, a Clinton appointee, would not need to recuse herself. While most Republicans—with some very notable exceptions—have been reticent to criticize Robert Mueller, they likely would have been more than ready and willing to attack a Clinton Justice Department for using the FBI to go after her political opponent. While we now hear about GOP congressmen privately confessing their loathing for Trump while publicly supporting him out of fear they’ll lose their own political support, they would have been able to jump on the Trump anti-Clinton bandwagon without hesitation, freed of the ethical and legal norms of the office of the presidency standing in their way. They could freely be, as they were under President Barack Obama, the Party of No, blocking and disrupting any Clinton policy agenda. The resulting political stalemate would have been a win for Putin: a United States so wrapped up in its internal divisions that it could not exert itself forcefully on the global stage.
Instead, Trump won, and ironically, he is more constrained by political norms than he would have ever been if he had lost to Clinton. His attempts to use the narrative of a “rigged” election and voter fraud are nonsensical, given that he won the electoral college, and therefore the election. As the head of the executive branch, he faces consequences – political and potentially legal – for encouraging his political enemies to be investigated and “locked up.” And because he is the president, the investigation into Russian collusion takes on a national security importance even for many conservatives. Worse yet, the very reason for appointing a special counsel stems from the need to insulate the investigation from executive interference — which means that any step Trump takes to control or attack the investigation can constitute, precisely by virtue of his office, potential obstruction of justice.
For Russia’s part, having Trump as a “useful idiot on the sidelines” might have been a better role for them in many ways than his actually being president. No one would have questioned his repeating Russian propaganda word for word – while it might have been provocative, he would have had no oath or public trust he was expected to uphold. Russia also wouldn’t need to worry that the foreign policy establishment might get to him or even change his mind on questions of U.S. policy toward Russia. And there would be no Mueller investigation (although presumably the FBI would still be investigating), which is as much a thorn in Putin’s side as it is in Trump’s, since it has galvanized Congress to pass more sanctions against his oligarch friends.
Still, Putin now has someone who peddles conspiracies, attacks the press, dismisses the judiciary and contradicts his own intelligence community while sitting in the Oval Office. They also have someone who holds the vast power of the U.S. presidency – one that is at its zenith in the realm of foreign affairs – who can concretely deliver on their global vision of Russian ascendancy. And if Trump had knowledge of Russian assistance to his campaign in any way at all during the election, they hold the ultimate kompromat over him, in the form of evidence that could lead to his impeachment anytime they choose. That’s why – though it may have initially foreseen Trump as a means to destroy a Clinton presidency – the outcome for Russia is better than they ever imagined. Trump, however, might be reconsidering what he wished for.
Originally published by the Just Security, New York University School of Law, under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivs-NonCommercial license.