|MATTHIEU BOREL / THE NEW YORK TIMES|
It has taken nearly two years, but the key question of the 2016 presidential election -- did Russian interference lead to Donald Trump's stunning victory? -- is finally being answered, and that answer is that it very likely did.
Let's concede from the jump that the Trump sycophancy will never agree with that conclusion, and there has been no hotter button for Trump himself, who goes ballistic at the mere hint that he did not beat Hillary Clinton fair and square. This is the dominant reason he continues to insist the Russia scandal is a "hoax" and Special Counsel Robert Mueller's pursuit of him a "witch hunt.".
But their disbelief does not square with the forensic analysis of Kathleen Hall Jamieson, whose forthcoming book -- Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President -- What We Don't, Can't and Do Know -- is guaranteed to cause an enormous uproar and further chest pains for Trump and his allies when it is published on October 3, barely five weeks before a midterm election that will be a referendum on Trump and could determine the eventual fate of his tumultuous presidency.
"Russian masterminds" pulled off a technological and political coup, concludes Jamieson, and the news media "inadvertently helped them achieve their goals."
Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of the nonprofit policy watchdog group FactCheck.org, , is not your ordinary numbers-crunching academic. Over a five-decade career, she was garnered the sometimes grudging respect of politicians and social scientists across the policy spectrum because of her astute, meticulously researched analyses of how people vote. And why, and especially in the case of the 2016 election, what influences them to change their minds.
Clinton, in losing the Electoral College but winning the popular vote by 2.9 million votes, lost the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by a combined 77,744 votes out of 13.9 million ballots cast. She would have won the Electoral College by a 275-248 electoral vote margin if 5,353 Trump voters had gone for her instead in Michigan, 11,375 voters in Wisconsin and 22,147 voters in Pennsylvania.
Keep that in mind in understanding the big takeaways of Cyberwar:
Candidates typically blunt each other's messages in close elections, resulting in fairly balanced media coverage. But the stream of content stolen from the Clinton campaign -- described in the media as coming from WikiLeaks rather than Russia -- "reweighted the news environment in Trump's favor."
Strikingly, Russian hackers' first attempt to infiltrate Clinton's computer servers took place on July 27, 2016, the same day that Trump declared, "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press."
Significantly, Russian hackers stole Clinton campaign analytics showing that there were a high proportion of likely "Hillary defectors" in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania who were bombarded with negative information about Clinton through a covert media campaign.
While the conventional wisdom is that Clinton "won" the three presidential debates, there was a "small but significant drop in reported intention to vote for her" because of questions that Russian trolls, abetted by Trump, raised over her trustworthiness.
An unusually high percentage of voters liked neither candidate and stayed undecided longer than usual, and by some counts 37 million Americans, or 15 percent of the electorate—were still undecided in the final weeks before the election.
These undecideds were unduly influenced by Russian-generated social media messaging, including its consistency with messaging from the Trump campaign and by its strategic alignment with the campaign's geographic and demographic objectives.
Russian trolls created messaging aimed at winning support for Trump from churchgoers and military families, key Republican voters who seemed likely to lack enthusiasm for a thrice-married adulterer who got multiple draft deferments and mocked Gold Star parents and a former POW.
A WikiLeaks release of a damaging tranche of Russian-hacked emails on October 7, 2016 succeeded in rescuing Trump's slumping candidacy by generating a scandal to counterbalance the "Access Hollywood" tape and a damning intelligence report on Russian interference.
Jane Mayer calls Jamieson's work "scrupulously nonpartisan" in a New Yorker review of Cyberwar and an interview with the author.
Mayer writes that Jamieson began her study of the 2016 election with an open mind. But in the fall of 2017, as she watched the House and the Senate hold hearings on Russia’s social-media trickery and reviewed dozens of Facebook ads released by the House Intelligence Committee that had been paid for by Russians, she developed suspicions about the reasons behind Trump’s victory.
These suspicions were more or less confirmed in February when a detailed indictment was released of 13 Russians working at the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm in St. Petersburg where operatives were described as having worked day and night waging "information warfare against the United States of America." Then, in July, 12 Russian intelligence officers were indicted for hacking into the computers of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign.
Finally -- and hang onto you hats, Trump haters -- Jamieson believes FBI Director James Comey's decision to make a damaging public pronouncement on Clinton's handling of classified e-mails in July 2016 can plausibly be attributed to Russian disinformation. As evidence, she cites unverified Russian intelligence describing purported but possibly false e-mails from Attorney General Loretta Lynch to a member of the Clinton team in which she promised that would go easy on Clinton.
Comey, notes Jamieson, reportedly told aides that he let this disinformation shape his decision to countermand Lynch's order to not go public with the FBI's conclusion about the Clinton e-mails, which was Justice Department policy in cases where it was concluded no crime had been committed.
The furor, which only increased when Comey announced that the e-mail investigation had been reopened 11 days before the election, played beautifully into Trumps hands. A subsequent report by Justice's inspector general described Comey’s behavior as "extraordinary and insubordinate," and found his justifications unpersuasive.
Meyer notes that FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver has found that coverage of the Clinton e-mail investigation frequently dominated the news. Silver has concluded that all the talk about the e-mails may have shifted the race by as much as four points overall, swinging Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida to Trump, and possibly North Carolina and Arizona, too.
Regardless of Jamieson's findings about Russian interference, she writes that "barring evidence of tampering" with voting machines or ballot boxes, "Trump is the duly elected President of the United States."
Jamieson says that she will leave it to others to decide whether Trump should remain in office if conclusive evidence emerges that he colluded with Russia.
"My personal judgment is yes, even then Mr. Trump would be President," she writes. "But probably not for long."
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