'Red Scare 2': Russia and the 2016 US election

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) meets U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton upon her arrival at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Vladivostok September 8, 2012. © Mikhail Metzel
Among the many ways in which the 2016 US presidential election has been out of the ordinary is the invocation of Russia as a looming threat to American democracy, basically putting “Putin on the ballot” in the words of the Washington Post.

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Russia was the topic that attracted the most attention during all three presidential debates and the vice-presidential one, easily surpassing every other subject by a wide margin. Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) was a distant second, while taxes brought up the third place.

Consider Hillary Clinton’s spin in the third debate, on October 20, when instead of responding to a question about a particular phrase in one of her paid speeches to Wall Street, she blamed Russia.

“What’s really important about WikiLeaks is that the Russians have engaged in espionage against Americans,” Clinton said, accusing the “highest levels of the Russian government” and “Putin himself” of the cyberattacks on the US. “They have given that information to WikiLeaks for the purpose of putting it on the internet.”

“That was a great pivot,” Clinton's Republican rival Donald Trump shot back. “Off the fact that she wants open borders. How did we get on to Putin?”

“He’d rather have a puppet as president,” Clinton said.

“No, you’re the puppet,” Trump responded.

Lost in translation

That exchange was the culmination of literally months of Democrats blaming their every setback on Russia or President Vladimir Putin personally, from the hacking of Democratic National Committee (DNC) documents in June 2016 to WikiLeaks’ publication of documents from the personal account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chair, in the month leading up to the election.

Back in 2015, when it looked like the race might be between Clinton and Jeb Bush, it was the Republicans who brought up the Russian threat as a straw man to prove their toughness on foreign policy. Then Donald Trump entered the presidential contest, easily shutting down “low energy” Bush and other rivals. When Moscow intervened in Syria at the invitation from Damascus, Washington insiders howled in protest. By contrast, Trump said he liked Russia “bombing the hell out of ISIS.”

That may have been among the reasons Putin complimented Trump on December 17, during his traditional Q&A session with Russian journalists.

"He is a very flamboyant man, very talented, no doubt about that... He is the absolute leader of the presidential race, as we see it today. He says that he wants to move to another level of relations, to a deeper level of relations with Russia. How can we not welcome that? Of course, we welcome it," Putin said.

Trump welcomed the comments, saying a day later at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, that “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.” 

Putin’s words may have been mangled in translation. While the “talented” part was straightforward, the other adjective used by the Russian president (яркий) could mean “bright” as in sunlight, “vivid” as in color, or “flamboyant” as in a colorful character. When reporting on Putin’s remarks, CNN used “bright,” while RT actually used “flamboyant.” Others used “brilliant,” which is what Trump himself chose to use when referring to the remarks.

All in all, it much resembled the infamous 2009 incident when Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, presented her Russian counterpart a token that was meant to say “reset” but actually said “overload.”

Cover of the Politico Magazine article by Michael Crowley, May-June 2016 edition © politico.com

DNC hack and the ‘Red Scare’

By June 2016, Trump had locked down the Republican nomination while Clinton was still struggling to fend off a challenge by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Then a hacker calling himself “Guccifer 2.0” – after the Romanian national who exposed Clinton’s use of private email server in 2013 – claimed to have breached the servers of the Democratic National Committee and published several DNC documents on his blog.

The documents indicated a cozy relationship between the party and the Clinton campaign, leading to accusations that the primary elections were being “rigged” and stolen from Sanders. With the mainstream media silent about the leaks, however, the hacker turned some files over to WikiLeaks, who published them on the eve of the Democratic convention in July.

The DNC accepted the resignations of several top officials, including Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who was given a post in the Clinton campaign. Meanwhile, Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook chose to blame the Russian government for the hack and the subsequent disclosures.

“Experts are telling us that Russian state actors broke into the DNC, stole these emails, and other experts are now saying that the Russians are releasing these emails for the purpose of actually helping Donald Trump,” Mook told CNN.

He was referring to CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm hired by the DNC in June to investigate the data breach. The company’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Dmitri Alperovitch, is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative. The Atlantic Council is a think-tank promoting NATO, the US-led Cold War alliance that continued to expand after 1991, eventually reaching the Russian borders.

Meanwhile, Trump played right along, joking with reporters that perhaps Russian hackers could find some of the deleted emails from Clinton’s tenure at that State Department.

“Russia, if you’re listening I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said, prompting hysterical comments from Democrats that he was inviting a foreign cyber-invasion.

Breedlove, Powell and DCLeaks

Earlier in July, whistleblower website DCLeaks published a number of emails from the private account of then-retired General Philip M. Breedlove, former head of the US European Command. The emails showed how Breedlove worked with officials at the State Department, the Atlantic Council and the US-backed regime in Ukraine in order to draw the Obama administration into a confrontation with Russia.

Though Breedlove’s emails attracted little attention, the same website published the private emails of Colin Powell, former top general and secretary of state, in September. The correspondence, which Powell acknowledged as authentic, contained unflattering descriptions of both Clinton and Trump – and confirmed that Breedlove had reached out to him, asking for back-channel access to the White House.

In October, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of National Intelligence asserted that the hacking and publication of documents “on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona” were “consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts… intended to interfere with the US election process.”

“However, we are not now in a position to attribute this activity to the Russian Government,” said the statement.

Within an hour of that announcement, WikiLeaks posted the first batch of emails belonging to Clinton’s campaign chair. The daily releases have continued ever since.

Publishing Podesta before WikiLeaks?

Rather than address the contents of the emails, the Clinton campaign responded by screaming, “Russians!” When RT reported on the Podesta emails that WikiLeaks published on October 13 – but before WikiLeaks had a chance to tweet the announcement of their release – that was seen as “proof” of “collusion”between the whistleblowers and the Kremlin.

Apparently, understanding how internet works is hard for some people.

A week after RT debunked this conspiracy theory Clinton’s communications director Jennifer Palmieri was still peddling it, telling the Washington Post that “on more than one occasion Russia Today [RT] has actually posted emails from WikiLeaks even ahead of WikiLeaks.”

“This is an effort that’s led by the Russians. Intelligence agencies have confirmed that that is designed to hurt our campaign,” said Palmieri.

Such accusations were “100-percent, distilled lies,” replied RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan.

Russian officials have repeatedly denied involvement in both the hacks and the releases of purloined documents, calling the accusation “so absurd it borders on total stupidity.”

In response, the Clinton camp doubled down. A website accusing Trump of being a puppet of the Kremlin – putintrump.org – went live on October 23. The site’s designer reached back to the Cold War for some old-fashioned red-baiting, spelling T and P and a hammer and a sickle. Russians laughed it off, having seen Communism retreat into history books back in 1991.

Trump’s Putin ‘bromance’

At a March 2016 press conference in Washington, Trump answered a question by RT’s Caleb Maupin by saying it would be “very good” if the US could “get along with Russia.” A variation on that statement has been a staple of his campaign speeches ever since.

His willingness to work with Russia has been condemned by the Washington establishment, Democrats and mainstream Republicans alike. Even Trump’s brief interview with longtime friend Larry King became a subject of controversy in September, because King’s show airs on RT America – or “Kremlin RT” as some US media put it.

Yet none other than President Barack Obama – who endorsed Clinton and has campaigned for her vocally – said just last month that Russia is “a large, important country with a military that is second only to ours and has to be a part of the solution on the world stage rather than part of the problem."

Just this week, after Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) accused the FBI of hiding “explosive information” about Trump’s alleged ties with Russia, the Bureau told the New York Times that no such evidence was found despite months of inquiry.

“No evidence has emerged that would link [Trump] or anyone else in his business or political circle directly to [Russia],”the Times wrote.

The notion that Russia supported Trump was drummed up by the US media in order to protect Clinton, Putin told reporters at the Valdai Discussion Club last month. Accusations of Russian meddling were “complete and utter rubbish… a way of manipulating the public consciousness ahead of the US presidential elections,” he added.

One of the Podesta emails appears to corroborate this explanation. On December 21, 2015, The Hill columnist Brent Budowski advised Podesta to deflect uncomfortable questions about ISIS by going after Russia.

“Best approach is to slaughter Donald for his bromance with Putin, but not go too far betting on Putin re Syria,” Budowsky wrote.

The rest is history.