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Thursday, December 14, 2017

We shouldn’t use Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Russian financiers and the Russian government as a way to divert attention — as the Trump campaign claims the media is doing — from the Democratic Party’s tilting the scales in Hillary Clinton’s favor. The emails are clear, and Vladimir Putin didn’t write them: Bernie Sanders and his campaign were running against Hillary Clinton and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, simply put.

However, the path those emails took to reach the public deserves our attention, and our concern: There is plenty of evidence that the Russian government was involved in the email leak, that their aim was to weaken the Clinton campaign, and that Donald Trump has a troubling number of connections to a government that happens to be helping his campaign.

 

First, the emails themselves: There’s a growing consensus among cybersecurity experts that Russian intelligence agencies were involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee and taking their emails. Here are the operative paragraphs from the New York Times on Sunday:

“Proving the source of a cyberattack is notoriously difficult. But researchers have concluded that the national committee was breached by two Russian intelligence agencies, which were the same attackers behind previous Russian cyberoperations at the White House, the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff last year. And metadata from the released emails suggests that the documents passed through Russian computers…”

“Evidence so far suggests that the attack was the work of at least two separate [Russian intelligence] agencies, each apparently working without the knowledge that the other was inside the Democrats’ computers. It is unclear how WikiLeaks obtained the email trove. But the presumption is that the intelligence agencies turned it over, either directly or through an intermediary. Moreover, the timing of the release, between the end of the Republican convention and the beginning of the Democratic one, seems too well planned to be coincidental.”

There are more technically-savvy reporters than I out there who have picked the details of the hack apart, but suffice it to say: The hack had many of the hallmarks of similar attacks perpetrated by the Russian government or its intelligence agencies, in Estonia and Ukraine, for example. Russian signatures were even found in the metadata of the leak. It’s possible that Guccifer 2.0, the hacker who originally claimed responsibility for the leak, was just a front.

It would hardly be the first time Putin used technology to flex Russian might beyond its military or economic limitations.

It also wouldn’t be surprising if Putin prefers Trump: The Russian strongman often supports nationalists movements in western nations, in attempt to weaken institutions like the European Union and NATO and expand Russian influence abroad. As Slate’s Franklin Foer noted recently, “Putin runs stealth efforts on behalf of politicians who rail against the European Union and want to push away from NATO. He’s been a patron of Golden Dawn in Greece, Ataka in Bulgaria, and Jobbik in Hungary.”

Trump shows the kind of nationalist tendencies that Putin wants: He’s expressed his indifference to nuclear non-proliferation, part of his “America First” ideology, which treats American military force abroad like a protection racket. He has said he might not respond to Russian military aggression against the Baltic states, defying America’s NATO commitments, and Trump advisors were keen to remove language which supported arming Ukraine against Russian aggression from the party platform.

And, similarly, it wouldn’t be shocking if Trump has become closer to Putin, even since his campaign began. It starts with his investments. In 2008, Donald Jr. told a real estate conference that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” the Washington Post reported last month. Putin and Trump have traded compliments about each other over the past few months, and Trump has an extensive business record in Russia, including hosting a Miss Universe pageant there in 2013.

Trump highest profile military advisor, General Michael T. Flynn, has appeared regularly on the government-funded Russia Today network as an analyst, and sat nearly elbow-to-elbow with Putin at a gala for the network a year and a half after retiring from service as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Other Trump advisors have far deeper ties: one foreign policy advisor, Carter Page, “built a career on deals with Russia and its state-run gas company,” according to Bloomberg Business. And Trump’s campaign manager has infamously consulted for tyrants, dictators, and strongmen  worldwide, including the pro-Putin former leader of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.

 

As The Intercept’s Robert Mackey notes, “very few of us are cybersecurity experts, and the Iraq debacle is a reminder of how dangerous it can be to put blind faith in experts whose claims might reinforce our own political positions”. So it’s important to be mindful of trusting our geopolitical stereotypes — of Russian oligarchs running the world through global investment and state cyber attacks; of Trump, the American demagogue, benefitting from the (seemingly correct) assumption that he would withdraw from the world; of financial and business ties being indicative of illegal cooperation.

And it’s not worth pretending that the American government hasn’t meddled in foreign elections in much the same way Russia has here. What is alarming is the extent to which Trump seems to welcome Putin’s help.

Thus the title. Don’t rush to judgement — be concerned.

 

Photo: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump points at the gathered media during his walk through at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, U.S., July 21, 2016.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

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