Is Russia Trying To Help Trump Win The Presidential Election?

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As the Democratic National Convention begins in Philadelphia, the party is being shaken up by a massive leak of internal emails. The embarrassment was the final straw for Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who resigned as chair of the Democratic National Committee this weekend. The emails don’t really reveal much; the main takeaway is that out of the hundreds of people who work at the DNC, some were Hillary Clinton supporters, and some were Bernie Sanders supporters. Perhaps the most unsavory bit to leak was that one staffer questioned Sanders’ faith. But the source of the emails, and why they were leaked, should be the real point of concern here.

The roots of this hack date back to June, when it was reported that Russian hacking collectives nicknamed “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear” had breached the DNC’s servers looking for data about Donald Trump. At the time the DNC denied the breach extended much beyond that, and but it appears that the email hack and the Trump hack are related. Still, in light of what happened on Friday, it’s hard not to wonder the extent of the operation.

Is Russia Trying To Influence The Presidential Election?

On Friday, nearly 20,000 emails from the DNC’s private servers were released by WikiLeaks, and the official story is that they came from one hacker calling himself Guccifer 2.0. Few security experts found it credible, however, and according to the New York Times, as the leaked emails have been examined, it’s become clear that Russia was somehow involved:

…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.

In fact, the Clinton campaign has gone so far as to openly accuse Russia of leaking the emails, taking a step unprecedented in American politics and accusing its opponent of working against American interests. Even former Trump staffers and the New York Observer, owned by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, has expressed concern that Russia might be trying to interfere in American politics. All this begs the obvious question. Why would Vladimir Putin, or at the very least those who work for him, support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign? There’s mounting evidence that a financial investment in Trump has, for Russia, turned political.

Is There A Trump-Russia Connection?

That Trump has sought Russian investment in the past is hardly a secret. His multiple past bankruptcies have reportedly resulted in him being blackballed by U.S. banks, and some banks in other parts of the world, but a few banks are still willing to lend to him; the Wall Street Journal estimates that he owes something in the range of of $250 million to banks. A big question, though, is how much Trump owes to non-banks and who these people and organizations are. Unless he releases his tax returns — something every presidential candidate in modern history has done but that he has refused to do — we just don’t know and it’s all open to dispute.

Talking Points Memo has a broad overview of Trump’s Russian financial connections, which at best finds that Trump will take money from anybody and at worst that he might owe a substantial amount of money to Putin or his close associates. In a 2008 interview about the Trump organization, Donald Trump Jr. stated, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Certainly not helping matters are the questionable jobs taken in the past by Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who has basically made a career as an advisor to dictators, including some close to Putin. Manafort’s not the only one; other Trump campaign insiders have close ties to the Russian government.

There’s also this curious occurrence that happened during the Republican convention, as Josh Marshall points out:

One of the most enduring dynamics of GOP conventions (there’s a comparable dynamic on the Dem side) is more mainstream nominees battling conservative activists over the party platform, with activists trying to check all the hardline ideological boxes and the nominees trying to soften most or all of those edges. This is one thing that made the Trump convention very different. The Trump Camp was totally indifferent to the platform. So party activists were able to write one of the most conservative platforms in history. Not with Trump’s backing but because he simply didn’t care. With one big exception: Trump’s team mobilized the nominee’s traditional mix of cajoling and strong-arming on one point: changing the party platform on assistance to Ukraine against Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine. For what it’s worth (and it’s not worth much) I am quite skeptical of most Republicans call for aggressively arming Ukraine to resist Russian aggression. But the single-mindedness of this focus on this one issue – in the context of total indifference to everything else in the platform – speaks volumes.

Does Russia Want Trump In The White House?

Left out of all the conspiracy theorizing is the fact that even if Trump didn’t owe any Russian a dime, Putin has every reason to support Trump. Russia has been aggressively bidding to build its sphere of influence by invading the Ukraine, supporting the Assad regime in Syria, and even buzzing American military bases and ships hoping to provoke a reaction Putin can exploit to declare war. Trump’s campaign supports withdrawing from trade deals and overseas military commitments — Trump’s sudden disinterest in assisting NATO and pulling out of the WTO have recently raised red flags — which would create a vacuum Russia is all too happy to fill. Supporting an isolationist demagogue is something Russia is more than happy to do as a matter of foreign policy, as Slate points out.

Again, Trump could easily dismiss this speculation by releasing his tax returns, but he has yet to do so. Just why will likely remain a matter of speculation, along with Trump’s finances, his deeper connections to Russia, and a host of things. Regardless of Trump’s actions, however, it certainly seems that Russia has a preferred candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

UPDATE: On Monday, U.S. intelligence officials stated that they believe the DNC hacking is part of an effort by the Russian government to swing the election for Trump.

Reports the Daily Beast:

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.

Further, Vice reports that some of the documents released in the hack were found to be tampered with and/or edited.

Second, stolen documents leaked in an influence operation are not fully trustworthy. Deception operations are designed to deceive. The metadata show that the Russian operators apparently edited some documents, and in some cases created new documents after the intruders were already expunged from the DNC network on June 11. A file called donors.xls, for instance, was created more than a day after the story came out, on June 15, most likely by copy-pasting an existing list into a clean document.

Although so far the actual content of the leaked documents appears not to have been tampered with, manipulation would fit an established pattern of operational behaviour in other contexts, such as troll farms or planting fake media stories. Subtle (or not so subtle) manipulation of content may be in the interest of the adversary in the future. Documents that were leaked by or through an intelligence operation should be handled with great care, and journalists should not simply treat them as reliable sources.