In responding to assertions attributed to CIA analysts who say that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election in order to help Donald Trump win, the president-elect is following the standard business practice employed by oil companies and the tobacco industry in order to deflect criticism: first come the categorical denials whose purpose is to trample on the questions and belittle the questioners; then comes the cloud of uncertainty whose purpose is to promote a sense of equality in the face of the unknown.
Whereas other practitioners of this strategy often take years to move from stage one to stage two, Trump makes the leap within a few sentences. Having first dismissed the CIA’s claim as ridiculous, Trump then pleaded ignorance.
In order to foster an all-embracing sense of uncertainty, in his interview aired on Fox News yesterday, Trump said: “there’s great confusion. Nobody really knows…. They’re not sure. They’re fighting among themselves. They’re not sure…. if you read the stories, the various stories, they’re disputing. And certain groups don’t necessarily agree. Personally, it could be Russia. It — I don’t really think it is. But who knows? I don’t know either. They don’t know and I don’t know.”
If Trump has actually read the news reports he’d know that there is a consensus in the intelligence community and the FBI that Russia interfered in the election.
What is in dispute is not the fact of the interference but its purpose.
News reporting is currently reducing this dispute to a binary question about whether Russia was trying to install Trump as president, but for those willing to speculate about Russian objectives the analysis needs to be a bit more subtle.
What should not be in dispute is the claim that Russia had a preference for Trump. As the New York Times reports:
American officials cite broad evidence that Mr. Putin and the Russian government favored Mr. Trump over Mrs. Clinton.
After demonstrators marched through Moscow in 2011 chanting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin,” Mr. Putin publicly accused Mrs. Clinton, then the secretary of state, of instigating the protests. “She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” he said.
More generally, the Russian government has blamed Mrs. Clinton, along with the C.I.A. and other American officials, for encouraging anti-Russian revolts during the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. What Americans saw as legitimate democracy promotion, Mr. Putin saw as an unwarranted intrusion into Russia’s geographic sphere of interest, as the United States once saw Soviet meddling in Cuba.
By contrast, Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin have had a very public mutual admiration society. In December 2015, the Russian president called Mr. Trump “very colorful” — using a Russian word that Mr. Trump and some news outlets mistranslated as “brilliant” — as well as “talented” and “absolutely the leader in the presidential race.” Mr. Trump called Mr. Putin “a strong leader” and further pleased him by questioning whether the United States should defend NATO members that did not spend enough on their militaries.
Russian television, which is tightly controlled by the government, has generally portrayed Mr. Trump as a strong, friendly potential partner while often airing scathing assessments of Mrs. Clinton.
And yet, there is skepticism within the American government, particularly at the F.B.I., that this evidence adds up to proof that the Russians had the specific objective of getting Mr. Trump elected.
A senior American law enforcement official said the F.B.I. believed that the Russians probably had a combination of goals, including damaging Mrs. Clinton and undermining American democratic institutions. Whether one of those goals was to install Mr. Trump remains unclear to the F.B.I., he said.
The official played down any disagreement between the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., and suggested that the C.I.A.’s conclusions were probably more nuanced than they were being framed in the news media.
There is little reason to doubt that Russia has always had a strong preference for Trump and yet when the DNC hacking was instigated, everyone — including the Russians — must have seen a Trump victory as a long-shot.
So, discussion about Russian intentions needs to take account of the strong likelihood that its goals evolved. As the Washington Post reported in July, “It may be that the Kremlin wishes to disrupt and discredit the U.S. political process without seeking any particular result.”
And yet through a combination of the effect of multiple factors — leaked emails, relentless attacks on Hillary Clinton’s integrity, the lack of a compelling Democratic Party message, and then a decisive last minute assist from the FBI — Donald Trump won the election.
This is the outcome Russia wanted and helped bring about.
And if there is any remaining doubt that it will be duly rewarded for its efforts, the first serving is about to get dished out this week in the form of Rex Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon Mobil, whose appointment as Secretary of State is already being praised by the Kremlin even before it has been announced.