BY: ANDY LAUB
When Special Counsel Robert Mueller released his sweeping thirty-seven page indictment of thirteen Russian nationals on February 16th, the public for the first time got a clear glimpse at just how elaborate the Russian government’s operation to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election was. From troll factories in St. Petersburg to swing states across America, Russians working under the banner of a company called “Internet Research Agency” sowed the seeds of discord by spreading false propaganda around Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. They even went so far as interacting with Trump campaign officials and volunteers to fan the flames against Secretary Clinton by having people dress up as her placing themselves behind prison bars at Trump rallies, in direct reference to Mr. Trump’s ongoing attacks against Secretary Clinton’s use of a private email server. It does not appear from this indictment that Trump officials knew they were communicating with Russians or if it had any impact on actual votes, but as it read in the indictment the interference on the part of the Russians in the 2016 campaign was “supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump” and disparaging Hillary Clinton. More broadly speaking, this type of interference in the very fundamentals of U.S democracy from a hostile foreign power should alarm every American regardless of political affiliation. As Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller investigation, asserted in his press conference announcing the indictments, “The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy.”
This was perhaps the most sophisticated and successful interference by a foreign power against the world’s leading democracy. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper noted Russia is “only emboldened” and will “continue to interfere in our political process.” His successor Dan Coats agreed remarking at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on February 13, 2018- “there should be no doubt” that Russia sees the 2018 US elections as a target. His colleagues, FBI Director Christopher Wray and CIA Director Mike Pompeo concurred with Coats’ analysis.
However, there is one critical person who refuses to definitively say that Russia interfered in the United States election and that is President Donald Trump, most likely because he was the clear beneficiary of the Russians actions. Following the G-20 meeting this past November in Vietnam, Trump took Putin’s side over his own intelligence services saying “He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times…Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ “And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it. I think he is very insulted by it.”” Furthermore, FBI Director Chris Wray confirmed at that same Senate hearing that the President has not directed him to look into any Russia related interference related to the 2016 election. The President’s dithering on this issue sets a very dangerous precedent. The entire U.S Intelligence service, the leaders of which he appointed, agrees that Russia did interfere in the 2016 elections and will likely be back in this upcoming year’s midterm elections. Yet the President fails even to acknowledge it happened, let alone prepare for it to happen again it, sending the signal to U.S adversaries that they can manipulate our sacred democratic election process without any recourse. This is not only a threat to the United States’ National Security, but to democracy worldwide. Russia through its now infamous troll operation has already shamelessly seized on the recent tragedy in Parkland Florida, where seventeen people were gunned down to fan the flames of the sensitive political gun control debate that has since taken place after the shooting occurred. Meanwhile, attention has turned to social media, where Facebook has come under fire; given it has been the preferred method of the Russian “bots” as Twitter has shutdown accounts. Entirely caught-up in the politics of it all, nothing has been done on the government side to protect the United States from Russian interference happening again in the 2018 midterms.
There any number of reasons why the Russians interfered in the 2016 election, to their dislike of Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump’s desire for improved US-Russia relations. But the issue isn’t so much why they interfered it’s how were they allowed to be so successful at it? This is why Robert Mueller’s investigation to get to the bottom of this is of grave importance- so that policymakers can begin taking the necessary steps to prevent from happening in the future. Russia’s 2016 election interference is much bigger than just Trump, Clinton, the Democrats and the Republicans; it strikes at the very core of democracy, which all Americans can rally behind to defend.
Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and Multilateral Affairs Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the Director for International Chapters at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.
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