Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about the potential Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and what then-candidate Trump and his closest advisers knew about the situation. The second story in the series can be found here.
If you are anything like me, your head is spinning from the various Russian – US hacking stories and different news outlets reporting on what Donald Trump and his surrogates knew about the hacking and when they knew it. The various stories are difficult to keep straight and the saturation in the media can lead to news fatigue.
One thing is clear (beyond the fact that Russia interfered in the election): there are too many people close to President Trump – from his campaign manager, to his (former) National Security Adviser, to his lawyer, to his Attorney General, to his own son (Donald Jr.) – to make the President’s claims there was no collusion with his campaign and Russia seem false.
My original idea for this piece was to try to combine the various stories into one concise timeline, but Steven Harper has already done so in a very thorough piece on Bill Moyer’s website. (Seriously, folks, check it out. Harper goes back to the 1970s. Very thorough).
Once I realized that I could never be as thorough as Harper and other news outlets, I began to ponder where I wanted to go with this article. So far, President Trump and his advisors and family have skirted dangerously close to breaking election law (depending on your interpretation of the law), which states that it is a “crime for any foreigner to contribute or donate money or some ‘other thing of value’ in connection with an American election, or for anyone to solicit a foreigner to do so.”
There is also no evidence, as things currently stand, of discussions between the Russians and the Trump campaign discussing the timing or the use of the stolen emails (although there is a lot of innuendo and the phrase, “Where there is smoke, there is fire” springs to mind). It is important to remember that, not only is this an area of law previously unexplored, but also the general public does not yet know the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations.
With all of that in mind, I go back to the original question, the one that, if it was not summer, I know several students would have asked me already: Why does it matter?
To begin with, let’s talk about what happened. News outlets refer to the Russian election hacking on the assumption that everyone know precisely what that means. Here is the simple version: hackers employed by the Russian government broke into the Democratic National Committee’s email servers and stole emails from Secretary Clinton and her top advisors. According to the CIA, FBI, and other agencies, the purpose behind this hack was raise doubts about Secretary Clinton’s fitness of office and to help Mr. Trump win the presidency.
And this is why Russia hacking and interference in the news stories during the election cycle matter: for more than 240 years, Americans have decided that our liberty and freedoms are worth fighting and dying for. The ability to choose our own leaders is a fundamental right in our country; the Constitution starts with “We the people.” We are supposed to be in charge; the idea was that the people would unite as one to govern ourselves, as noted in our national motto, E pluribus unum which means “out of many, one”. To allow a foreign government to interfere in America’s presidential election sends the message that ideals and freedoms that America’s Founding Fathers fought a revolution for no longer matter.
Fired FBI Director James Comey said it best in his testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee: “We have this big, messy, wonderful country where we fight with each other all the time. But nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for except other Americans. And that’s wonderful and often painful. But we’re talking about a foreign government that using technical intrusion, lots of other methods tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. And people need to recognize it. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally.”
Why does election hacking matter? Because it attacks our people. It doesn’t attack just Republicans or Democrats, Independents or Green Partiers, the hackers attacked America. This is the hard part for some to understand. They don’t see that America was under attack because this is not what one would consider a “traditional” attack: there were no tanks crossing a specific line in the sand. There were no troops deployed. There were no airstrikes. There were no ships moving into strategic position.
This attack was more insidious than that. It was not an attack of military might, but rather an attack of politics. An attack that shows an extremely thorough understanding of America and our divisive politics. An attack that played to America’s greatest weakness: people’s loyalty to their political parties. Each side is determined that they know the “right” way to lead America; each side is determined to “win” in the political arena. And this divisiveness only serves to create a weakness in our country that others can exploit.
And so, as more stories come out about what the President knew and when he or his advisors knew it, as people tweet blaming Democrats or tweet blaming Republicans, as each news cycle uncovers more new information, as the story gets muddier and muddier, I implore you to remember what started all of this and why the election hacking matters: it was an attack on the foundation and ideals of America.
And that cannot stand.
More than anything, the hacking into our election matters because it should serve as a strong reminder to put the American people over the American parties.
What should the president respond to the ongoing investigation? Find out in the second part of this series.