The resignation of Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz over a series of embarrassing leaked emails is obviously a big political story, and it does not portend well for Democratic efforts at demonstrating unity over the next week. But the larger, much more significant story surrounding those emails is the growing pile of evidence that they were hacked and released by Russian intelligence agencies.
Vice News’ Thomas Rid compiled all the publicly available evidence surrounding the hacking of the DNC, which was first reported last month. There’s a lot of technical jargon, but he writes that “the forensic evidence linking the DNC breach to known Russian operations is very strong,” while the evidence linking its dissemination to the Russians “is not as solid, yet a deception operation… is still highly likely.” The FBI is investigating the case, and as the Daily Beast reported Monday, the working theory is that the operation was intended to sway the presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor:
The FBI suspects that Russian government hackers breached the networks of the Democratic National Committee and stole emails that were posted to the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks on Friday. It’s an operation that several U.S. officials now suspect was a deliberate attempt to influence the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump, according to five individuals familiar with the investigation of the breach.
Nothing has been concretely proven, but we have to consider the ominous ramifications of what we’re looking at here. The DNC hacking operation described by Vice was highly sophisticated and had been ongoing “since at least summer 2015.” One has to leave open the possibility that, given the proficiency of the hackers and the amount of time they spent undetected, they obtained access to information that hasn’t been released yet. And if we are indeed seeing an effort by Russian intelligence services to sow chaos in the 2016 presidential race, then you can’t rule out the possibility that we’ll see more targeted releases of stolen information that coincide with big political moments – the DNC emails dropped just before the Democratic convention, and we still have several debates to get through, not to mention Election Day itself.
That would put a tremendous deal of strain both on the political system and the press. What obligations do campaigns and reporters have if they obtain information that they suspect has been released as part of a hostile foreign plot to influence how Americans vote? How does one deploy illicitly obtained opposition research against a political opponent when doing so is in the interest of a foreign entity?
That brings us to Trump, the supposed direct beneficiary of Russia’s meddling, who has been under fire for his ties to the Russian government and his very public skepticism towards NATO. He took a moment to react to the news of the alleged Russian hack during a campaign stop in Roanoke, Virginia, on Monday. “She worked very, very hard to rig the system,” Trump said of Wasserman Schultz. “Little did she know that China, Russia, one of our many, many ‘friends,’ came in and hacked the hell out of us. Can you imagine? Can you imagine what they’re hacking? I guarantee we’ll find the 33,000 emails,” referring to the emails Clinton said she deleted from her private server. Upon saying this, the crowd in Virginia erupted in applause.
The immediate media reaction to Trump’s statement focused on his use of the word “friends” to describe a country that “hacked the hell out of us,” but the video makes clear that Trump was being sarcastic (he used air quotes). The larger problem is that Trump, a major-party candidate for the presidency, was celebrating the fact that a geopolitical adversary committed cyberespionage on his political rivals. He was happy because the content of those hacked emails – DNC officials writing nasty things about Bernie Sanders – dovetails with his message about the “rigged” system favoring Hillary. And he was giddily anticipating future acts of political sabotage committed by countries that he sarcastically derides as “friends.”
There is a national security issue at play here that transcends the squabbling of a political campaign, and Trump either can’t see it or refuses to acknowledge it. Instead, he welcomes it because, for the moment, he is the beneficiary of what appears to be foreign meddling in our political system.